Raleigh restaurant workers walk out over lack of COVID-19 protections. What are workers' rights?

Joel Brown Image
Thursday, August 13, 2020
Raleigh restaurant worker walks out over lack of COVID protections. What are workers' rights?
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A group of essential workers walked off the job at a Raleigh restaurant over concerns their employer wasn't doing enough to stop the spread of the virus.

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- Local essential workers staged a COVID-19 revolt at one Raleigh restaurant. They walked off the job over concerns their employer wasn't doing enough to stop the spread of the virus and came to ABC11 for help with answers about workers' rights.

"I pray to God every day when I walk out of my house to go to work to keep me safe; keep me protected," the single mother of three said. "Monica" spoke to ABC11 if we shielded her face and did not name the Raleigh fast food restaurant where's she's worked full-time through the COVID-19 pandemic.


She found out last week on a workplace bulletin board that a co-worker tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Monica and other co-workers were angered that there was no announcement; no meeting; no restaurant-wide deep cleansing.

"If I hadn't went to look at the schedule, I wouldn't have seen the company's note. I have strong reason to believe that there is more than just one employee who tested positive."

After getting few answers from managers -- Monica and a co-worker staged a walk-out.

"It makes me feel betrayed that you would think that little of my life that you would not inform all employees. So, me and another employee walked out of our job."

UNC legal professor and labor law expert Jeffrey Hirsch says businesses are not obligated to any explicit legal requirements tied to COVID-19.

RELATED: Feel unsafe at work during the COVID-19 pandemic? Here are your rights

Hirsch says when it comes to business health oversight during the pandemic there's really two options for workers: OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on the federal level; and the NC Department of Labor. Two agencies which have been long under-funded and under-staffed.

"What we've seen particularly during COVID, but prior to that, is both at the federal level and the state, those agencies really haven't been particularly active," Hirsch said.

While there are health privacy laws barring businesses from identifying specific people who test positive Hirsch is now pushing employers towards more transparency.

"I would say best practice would be try to get the employee who contracted COVID to get their consent to tell their employees. That's usually my recommendation to employers."

Key takeaways:

  • Any worker can file a complaint with the NC Department of Labor.
  • You can also agitate for better working conditions, like the walk-out Monica staged at her job. There are federal protections in place if a workers fears their employer might retaliate against them for that.