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No one in the meeting knew what to do when their boss told their coworker to take his mask off.
There were about 15 people in the May 4 meeting in Houston, with about 10 more calling in remotely, when Al Hartman, the CEO of commercial real estate company Hartman Income REIT, turned to a 20-year-old employee.
“We didn’t even get to start the meeting, and Al looked directly at him and said, ‘Take off your mask,’” said one employee, who — like all four others interviewed for this story — asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
The young worker refused — he had an elderly grandma at home he couldn’t put at risk. So Hartman gave him an ultimatum.
“Hartman said, ‘Well, you can either take off your mask, or you can go home,’” the employee witnessing the exchange recalled. “He threw him out of the meeting in front of about 25 people, and it was very embarrassing and very humiliating.”
It was a shocking moment in the office, but according to five employees who spoke with BuzzFeed News, their CEO is known for such behavior and views. Since the pandemic began, Hartman has sent out at least seven emails seen by BuzzFeed News decrying the use of face masks, minimizing the seriousness of the coronavirus, and even encouraging staff to protect themselves from the virus by taking a drug that has not been tested or recommended by mainstream health experts.
“If we’re at work, he doesn’t want us wearing a mask,” a second employee said. “He says coronavirus is a hoax, more people die of the flu, and there’s no evidence it'll really hurt us.”
Health experts around the world have advised people to wear face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and polls have found an overwhelming number of Americans support mandatory mask laws. But still, thanks in part to long public skepticism of masks by President Donald Trump, face coverings have emerged as a cultural and political flashpoint in the US — and in US workplaces. Much has been written about whether employers can force staff to wear masks, but what about employers who try to do the opposite? What if your boss is one of the anti-mask campaigners most people are only used to seeing in viral videos?
Anti-mask workplaces are by no means limited to Texas or, indeed, to private companies. In Florida, the sheriff of Marion County has prohibited deputies and visitors from donning masks. In Philadelphia, a judge has refused to wear a mask and has ordered others in his courtroom to take off theirs. Even in the halls of Congress in Washington, DC, aides to Republicans say they have been mocked by superiors for wearing masks. Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert required his staff to come in during the pandemic and then “berated” them for wearing masks, one staffer told Politico. Gohmert later tested positive for the virus.
The safety of workplaces in the United States is governed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which typically inspects workplaces accused of violating health or safety standards. Per its website, the agency “generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear [cloth] face coverings at work,” but notes it’s at the employer’s discretion if the nature of their staff’s work or worksite could make mask-wearing hazardous. (In that circumstance, OSHA recommends other PPE, such as face shields or surgical masks.) But OSHA inspections — and therefore, the agency’s level of enforcement — were reduced significantly during the pandemic in April. The inspections were increased again a month later, but only in “areas where community spread of COVID-19 has significantly decreased.”
“If you speak up to your employer, you supposedly have rights,” Charlene Obernauer, the executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), told BuzzFeed News. “But now we just see OSHA not enforcing the law, and that workers’ rights are just being exploited, and they don’t have somewhere to go, so the agency that’s supposed to protect their health and safety on the job has gone AWOL.”
David Michaels, a George Washington School of Public Health professor who served as the head of OSHA from 2009 to 2017, acknowledged that the agency is “overwhelmed” but told BuzzFeed News workers should still file whistleblower complaints with them within 30 days of the retaliatory action — “after that the worker is out of luck,” he said.
Michaels also recommended that two or more workers could decide to wear masks as a concerted action, and file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board if they are retaliated against.
“Retaliating against workers is the opposite of what is needed to stem this epidemic and reopen the economy safely,” Michaels said.
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Staff in Hartman Income REIT’s Houston headquarters say they are now dealing with a suspected coronavirus outbreak in their office. At least three employees have returned a positive COVID-19 test, staff told BuzzFeed News, while many others are experiencing symptoms. (OSHA says coronavirus infections are likely work-related “when several cases develop among workers who work closely together and there is no alternative explanation.”) Many of the Hartman Income REIT workers are single parents, caretakers for elderly relatives, or have comorbidities that put them at serious risk for complications with the virus. Still, they do not wear masks, out of fear of losing their jobs during such a difficult economic time.
One staff member, a receptionist, has been dealing with a pretty serious bout with the virus, several employees said. Unrelated to the pandemic, she’d already been struggling with complications from a difficult pneumonia case that had her in and out of the hospital since the end of March.
When she was at last well enough to return to the office, it had to be with a mask — her immune system was too weak to risk infection, and knowing Hartman’s feelings about masks, she took a doctor’s note with her.
It wasn’t enough to appease her boss. In fact, he wanted to fire her over it, employees said.
“For her to return to work, her doctor said she absolutely had to wear a mask,” the third employee said. “The CEO wanted to get rid of her because she sits at the front desk at the corporate office … but because of her medical condition, he couldn’t really fire her, not legally.”
Instead, Hartman made an exception and let her continue wearing a mask — but she was moved to a back office where she wouldn’t be as visible.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Hartman downplayed the seriousness of the virus and falsely asserted, in contradiction to credible health experts, that masks were not an effective means of preventing infection. “Our discouragement of masks in the office is in support of the understanding that masks are ineffective in controlling the virus,” he said, “and that social distancing, hand washing, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces are the most effective ways to control the virus at this time.”
Still, Hartman claimed, “the company does not prohibit persons from wearing a mask,” despite employees saying they’ve faced retaliation for trying to do so.
This claim was made in a “clarification” of the company’s mask policy Hartman said was being distributed to employees. The document, which again falsely asserted masks were ineffective, cited the pro-Trump, conspiracy-fueled newspaper the Epoch Times and the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, an ultra-conservative fringe group that is anti-vaccination and anti-LGBTQ. It also cited a May piece from the New England Journal of Medicine to argue that mask-wearing outside of healthcare facilities was ineffective. But the authors of that piece later wrote another for the same journal, complaining that people were mischaracterizing their findings “as support for discrediting widespread masking,” and that “in truth, the intent of our article was to push for more masking, not less.”
In his statement to BuzzFeed News, Hartman called the temporary closing down of businesses, which was done to slow the spread of the virus, “a mistake of the elected officials responding to the left-wing media hysteria designed to discredit President Trump.”
Hartman, a frequent conservative donor, has not been afraid to espouse his right-wing and devoutly religious views in the workplace. In 2019, he took staff to a Houston Astros game and then passed out MAGA hats for them to wear there. After Chick-fil-A cut funding to charities accused of being anti-LGBTQ in November, he called for his workers to protest against the fast-food chain. In June, he forwarded to the whole company an email from the right-wing group PragerU, which called Black Lives Matter a “left-wing hate machine.” When an employee pushed back on the characterization, he called her a Marxist.
On his LinkedIn, Hartman calls “working to glorify God in the workplace” one of the “core values” of his property management company. He is vehemently anti-abortion, employees said, and at a companywide meeting last year showed photos of aborted fetuses in a PowerPoint presentation. He has also brought in speakers to talk about how "Democrats are killing babies," an employee said.
“I felt like I was at a rally I didn’t want to be a part of,” the third employee said.
According to a job description on their website, the company has a “faith based corporate culture” and donates to “several non-profit organizations that are working to implement Christian values into the market place and in legislation.” Still, they claim to be an “equal opportunity employer” that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of religion, race, or a variety of other identifiers.
But employees said that’s not true in practice and that new hires are subjected to one-on-one phone calls with Hartman during which he asks prying questions about their faith and how often they go to church.
“Anyone who’s not Christian doesn’t stick around very long,” the third employee claimed.
Hartman denied discriminating on the basis of religion or any other protected class, citing the company’s employment policies. “While it is true we consider ourselves a Christian company, we don’t take any action (adverse or otherwise) against any applicant or employee for their religious views,” he said.
“We apologize if any person has felt uncomfortable in their position here at Hartman,” he said, while adding that he had a right to express his political views in the workplace.
Hartman has also been forwarding the company emails from Steven Hotze, a Texas physician who has previously been criticized by colleagues for unscientific statements. Hotze appeared on Fox News in mid-March, minimizing the seriousness of the impending pandemic and telling viewers they should “conduct your life normally.” According to a 2005 profile of him in the Houston Press, Hotze has made several bizarre medical claims, including that birth control pills make women “less attractive to men” and men who lose their testicles have difficulty with math and reading maps. He has repeatedly espoused violently anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, comparing gay people to Nazis and saying the “homosexual movement” was being run by “Satanic cults,” according to the Texas Observer.
In one May email, which Hartman forwarded companywide, Hotze called the pandemic a “mass hysteria” and encouraged his supporters to attend a virtual rally opposing contact tracing. “The purpose of government is not to protect our health. The purpose of government is to protect our constitutional rights and liberties,” Hotze said in the email.
On Aug. 2, Hartman sent another companywide email urging all employees to take the drug Budesonide to guard against the virus “[whether] you have symptoms or not.” Budesonide — a steroid that is being pushed as a coronavirus cure by a single Texas doctor who is also a former Republican congressional candidate — is not recommended by health experts and has received little testing.
“It’s getting to the point where the employees don’t feel safe there anymore,” the third Hartman Income REIT employee said of their boss. “He’s not in a position to give medical advice.”
In early July, Texas made masks mandatory statewide when in public, but rules for businesses are still being set by individual counties. In Harris County, masks are only required in businesses that “[provide] goods or services directly to the public.”
“[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,” the third employee said. “We have outsiders that tour our buildings, we have outsiders that come in to deliver packages, to inquire about leasing.”
The only time they have to wear masks, the employee said, is when a tenant requires it in order to enter their space.
“[Hartman] went as far as to hang posters in the elevator that say that masks are not required,” the employee said.
It’s hard to say what Hartman’s employees can do about their situation, according to Obernauer, the NYCOSH executive director. “I think the big problem here is the issue of enforcement,” Obernauer said. “I mean, who do workers call in a situation like this where they’re being told they can’t wear a mask?”
“I just don’t understand why the states aren’t actively saying, ‘This is where you go and this is who you contact,’” Obernauer said. “Why isn’t there like a 311 number that workers can call?”
Some states, including Massachusetts and New York, have introduced hotlines or online complaint forms for workers who notice coronavirus safety violations in their workplace and wish to report them anonymously. The Texas RioGrande Legal Aid nonprofit group has urged workers who believe their workplace is unsafe during the pandemic to file a whistleblower complaint with OSHA.
Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University global health law expert, told BuzzFeed News he thinks there should be a “national standard for wearing masks,” and that they should be required for workplaces in enclosed indoor spaces.
“If employers don't allow employees and/or customers to wear masks it places everyone in danger,” Gostin said. “No one should have to risk a serious disease simply by working or shopping.”
For now, the workers at Hartman Income REIT are focusing on either healing from the coronavirus or hoping not to be the next one infected.
“It’s frustrating for everyone, because this is not the time to go hunting for a job,” the first employee said. “It’s sad [when] your company isn’t making you feel safe, and is instead making people feel scared.”
“That’s his right to not wear a mask,” the employee said. “But what about our rights to protect ourselves?”