HOUSTON (KXAN) — Employees of Hartman Income REIT, a commercial real estate company in Houston, say that a 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.”
The situation happened back in May.
“He threw him out of the meeting in front of about 25 people, and it was very humiliating,” the employee told Buzzfeed News.
The employees say the incident was not all that unusual. 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 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 precipitated 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.”Hartman Income REIT
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 the effectiveness of masks and also explains that the company is actively engaged in lawsuits to stop “government overreach.”
The company says it will pay any fines employees might receive from local authorities for following Hartman policies regarding masks.
“Hartman Income REIT management claims 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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.)