EMPLOYERS BEWARE: California Labor Commissioner Issues ‘Retaliation’ Fine After Employee Complaints about COVID Safety Measures
California’s Labor Commissioner issued a $125,913 fine against a McDonald’s franchisee for retaliating against its former employee who allegedly complained about COVID safety issues before being terminated. The Labor Commissioner named the franchisee, its owner, and its Human Resources Officer as jointly and severally liable and ordered reinstatement of the employees. The fines were broken down into lost wages, interest, Labor Code 98.6 retaliation penalties, and 1102.5 retaliation penalties. Labor Code 98.6, essentially, precludes employers from retaliation against employees due to the employee’s complaint about working conditions. Labor Code 98.6, essentially, precludes employers from retaliation against employees who make complaints to government agencies.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the claims were filed in September 2020 during a labor dispute. While Labor Commissioner investigations typically take a year or more, this investigation appears propelled along with the support of organized labor and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who voted to direct the office of County Counsel and the Department of Public Health to investigate. The Los Angeles Times reported that the employees were terminated for job abandonment. The restaurant and its owners are now in the unfortunate position of complying with the orders, appealing the citation to challenge the decision and the authority of the California Labor Commissioner, or reaching a resolution on a highly charged issue.
Employers should consult their counsel before disciplining or terminating employees who make claims, even if unfounded, relating to COVID concerns or workplace safety.