Workplace COVID-19 Data Can Be Released After Wisconsin Supreme Court Ruling

State health officials are free to release data that would identify which employers have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In an opinion issued Tuesday morning, the state’s highest court stated that three business lobbying groups had no basis to block release of the data, which was prompted by a news media open records request.

The justices, in a 4-3 opinion written by Justice Rebecca Dallet, concluded that a 2003 revision to the state open records law “makes clear that no one has a right to block the release of a public record unless otherwise specified” under very narrow circumstances. Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Brian Hagedorn and Jill Karofsky joined in the majority.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel filed an open records request asking DHS for the names of all Wisconsin businesses with more than 25 employees and where at least two people had tested positive for COVID-19 or were identified through contact tracing as “close case contacts” of COVID-19 patients.

The request was made at a time when workplace outbreaks of COVID-19, particularly in industries such as meatpacking where large numbers of people work in close quarters, had raised concerns about worker safety in the pandemic.

The newspaper’s request did not seek information identifying individual patients. At the rest of DHS, the request excluded employers with 25 or fewer employees, because in smaller work groups it would be easy to narrow down the data to individuals.

Elizabeth Goodsitt, a communications specialist for DHS, said Tuesday that the department must await further action by the circuit court before releasing any records.

“DHS remains temporarily enjoined from releasing any information relating to businesses whose employees have tested positive for COVID-19 or who contract tracing has shown close connections,” Goodsitt told the Wisconsin Examiner. “The Supreme Court did not order the release of records and instead remanded the case to circuit court. Procedurally, the case is not concluded until the circuit court so orders. DHS welcomes today’s decision, and it will continue its work to provide the public with timely, accurate information about COVID-19.”