In the last few weeks, people around Eugene have come forward with anonymous complaints about their local workplaces, sharing some of these stories and allegations on an Instagram profile called 86’d Eugene — a local iteration of a national group publishing allegations against local businesses and focusing on the service industry.
In addition to publicly airing these issues, many employees don’t realize that if they have a workplace concern or complaint, they also have the option to officially document the complaint with Oregon agencies, leading to an investigation and, hopefully, change.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) and the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are the two state agencies handling complaints of employees who are treated poorly in the workplace or feel unsafe. Workers can file complaints about harassment, wage and hour violations and discrimination with BOLI and complaints about workplace safety — including COVID-19 concerns — with OSHA. These complaints are then officially documented and investigated.
One thing hindering employees from filing complaints is that they simply don’t know the agencies exist or don’t understand how these organizations work, and the resources that are available to workers if they want to take action.
“You have a right to a safe and healthy workplace and concerns,” says Aaron Covin, a spokesperson for OSHA. OSHA, a national organization with local departments in each state, handles complaints related to health hazards. For example, if a workplace isn’t following COVID-19 related protocols, they can be reported to OSHA. Because of this, he says, they have been receiving an unusually high number of complaints throughout the last several months.
When filing a complaint, an online form and video instructions can walk you through how to fill in blanks. The employee will be asked to describe the hazard and location of the hazard, which can range from a physical address to a room inside a building.
Covin adds that OSHA complaints can be anonymous, but that there is a distinction between confidential and anonymous. If someone files a confidential complaint, OSHA can still follow up with that person to get more information and to discuss if changes have been made. If someone files anonymously, OSHA doesn’t know who filed it and does not have the option of following up with the person.
“With anonymous complaints, we don’t know you filed it with us,” Covin says. “It’s better in terms of information gathering if it’s a confidential complaint.” Regardless of whether a complaint is filed anonymously or confidentially, it still serves as a tip and an allegation, he explains.
When a complaint is filed, OSHA can then go look into the allegation and potentially do an inspection, depending on how the employer cooperates.
“The benefit of coming to us is that it is directly on our radar,” Covin says. “You have taken a step to file with us. We will engage with the employer and the process begins.”
But if someone has concerns and wants to take action against discrimination or retaliation, their complaints should be filed with BOLI, which operates similarly. Jenny Smith, a spokesperson for BOLI, says the agency seeks to protect civil rights of workers.
In filing complaints with BOLI, employees can also remain anonymous. Once an investigation is opened up, BOLI will begin gathering evidence, then will identify people who may have been treated similarly and interview other workers.
Smith explains that working with BOLI is an official process as well as a legal proceeding, though lawyers aren’t involved. She says it’s up to the employee how they want to go about whistleblowing on their employers or workplace, but that BOLI exists to protect.
“We are there to enforce civil rights protections under our state,” she says. Smith adds that BOLI is happy to help people understand the process and how to file a complaint. The end goal of a BOLI investigation is that behaviors of employers are corrected or wages are returned, if applicable.
Both Covin and Smith say an employee who accidentally places a complaint with the wrong agency will be contacted, so that the documentation goes to the right agency. If the tip was filed anonymously, it can also be passed along.
“Regardless of either situation, it gets in our system and we are going to follow-up,” Covin says.
For more information on how to file a complaint with OSHA visit OSHA.Oregon.gov.; For more information and to file a BOLI complaint visit Oregon.gov/BOLI.