HOUSTON (KXAN) — Employees of Hartman Income REIT, a commercial real estate company in Houston, say that a May 4 meeting took a turn when the company’s CEO turned to their coworker and told him to take off his face mask.
Five employees of the company, who remained anonymous in interviews with Buzzfeed News out of fear of retaliation, say that when their 20-year-old coworker refused to remove his mask, CEO Al Hartman replied, “Well, you can either take off your mask, or you can go home.”
“He threw him out of the meeting in front of about 25 people, and it was very humiliating,” the employee told Buzzfeed News.
The incident, however, was not all that unusual, the employees say. They claim Hartman has frequently expressed skepticism over mask-wearing and downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also say they were encouraged to take an untested drug to protect themselves from the disease.
“If we’re at work, he doesn’t want us wearing a mask,” one of the employees told Buzzfeed. “He says coronavirus is a hoax, more people die of the flu, and there’s no evidence it’ll really hurt us.”
In a Thursday statement, Hartman says the company does not prohibit people from wearing masks, despite several reports to the contrary by employees.
The company continued:
“We disagree with the media hysteria that precipiated the closure of the economy for COVID-19… our discouragement of masks in the office is in support of the understanding that masks are ineffective in controlling the virus, and that social distancing, hand washing and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces are the most effective ways to control the virus at this time.”
The company also says that coronavirus is “left wing media hysteria” and that the company has the right to freely express political views.
Hartman employees provided Buzzfeed with the company’s mask policy, which further denies effectiveness of masks and also explains that the company is actively engaged in lawsuits to stop “government overreach.”
Additionally, the company says it will pay any fines employees receive from local authorities for following Hartman policies regarding masks.
In addition to the mask incident, the employees also claim CEO Hartman and the company push conservative views and religious culture on employees — including, they claim, a presentation when CEO Hartman showed photos of aborted fetuses and said that “Democrats are killing babies.” The company denies that it discriminates or inquires about employees’ religious beliefs.
“[Hartman Income REIT management] claim that they’re exempt from the mask mandate because we technically don’t serve the public, which is a bunch of crap,” one of the employees said. “We have outsiders that tour our buildings, we have outsiders that come in to deliver packages, to inquire about leasing.”
“That’s his right to not wear a mask,” another of the employees said. “But what about our rights to protect ourselves?”
Can employers tell employees not to wear masks?
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website, it’s recommended that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work, saying mask wearing is “known as source control.”
However, OSHA says that employers do have the right to determine “whether to allow employees to wear face coverings in the workplace based on the specific circumstances present at the work site.”
Additionally, OSHA indicates that if an employer determines specific circumstances and positions could become dangerous because of mask wearing — for instance causing an employee to breathe in chemicals — they can discourage it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that employers should implement safety procedures that are specific to their workplace and that management should seek input from employees regarding changes.
Meanwhile, employees who raise concerns about workplace safety and health concerns are legally protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, OSHA says. According to this act, employers are prohibited from retaliating against workers for exercising a variety of rights — including filing a safety or health complaint with OSHA, raising concerns with employers, participating in an OSHA inspection or reporting workplace injuries or illness.
Workers can also submit unsafe work conditions and concerns at Whistleblowers.gov — which OSHA recommends doing as soon as possible to ensure legal time limits don’t expire.
Can employers force you to go to work if you have COVID-19 spread concerns?
OSHA says that generally, employers can require employees to go to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, although workers are protected from retaliation under certain circumstances.
These protections include:
- If workers believe they will face death or serious injury (and workplace conditions are so poor that it’s reasonable to be concerned)
- If workers try to get employers to correct conditions, without any success or improvement
- If the situation is so urgent workers don’t have time to eliminate the hazard before using normal timelines (filing complaints, etc.)