SALEM, Ore. — A bill that would extend protections for workplace whistleblowers in Oregon passed the state Senate in a party-line vote on Wednesday. Senate Bill 483 would make it easier for workers to claim retaliation if punished by their employers after making a complaint to state regulators.
While it is already illegal for employers to retaliate against a worker for reporting workplace health and safety violations, supporters of the bill say that the burden of proving that any such punishment constitutes retaliation currently falls squarely on the worker.
Under SB 483, a "rebuttable presumption" would be created if an employer fires or otherwise punishes a worker within 60 days of a complaint, shunting the burden of proof onto employers for the period immediately following such a report, complaint, or testimony.
“Oregon's workers have kept our communities safe and functional throughout this pandemic. Grocery store workers, farmworkers and healthcare professionals and every worker couldn't stay home,” said Democratic Senator Kathleen Taylor who introduced and championed the bill. “These workers showed up day in and day out, and they deserve adequate protections from retaliation.”
Senate Republicans made no secret of their opposition to the bill, saying in a statement that the bill would "bulldoze principles of due process in the workplace" and create a presumption of guilt for employers accused of retaliation.
“This bill opens up employers to a wide variety of spurious allegations from employees and activist lawyers,” said Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod. “This would send struggling businesses’ legal expenses through the roof at the same time they are trying to recover from a year of devastating lockdowns. Let me be clear, discrimination or retaliation in the workplace is unacceptable. The remedy for it is not to rewrite the rules of due process.”
The primary way for workers to make a workplace health or safety complaint is through Oregon OSHA, which has seen a glut of complaints amid the added precautions and restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic — in a number of cases resulting in hefty fines for businesses accused of flouting state guidelines.
“Too many workers are afraid to bring concerns over their health and safety, even though in 2020 complaints to OSHA increased tenfold. These are workers we rely on. Senate Bill 483 will remove some of the fear of reporting a health or safety violation, and ensure a more level playing field should they experience retaliation," added Senator Taylor.
The bill now moves on to the Oregon House of Representatives for consideration.