News about the coronavirus changes daily as the pandemic makes its way across the country. The U.S. is facing a months-long total shutdown to prevent transmission of the virus, or have its health care systems completely overwhelmed by those infected. The federal government is encouraging states to adopt a ban on gatherings of 10 or more, and working remotely is being encouraged for all who can.
This has prompted many employees to ask, what is expected of employers during a pandemic?
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to provide “a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause the death or serious physical harm to [its] employees.” COVID-19 is passed through respiratory means, and social distancing of at least six feet is being strongly encouraged, especially in workplaces where people often work under one roof and often in close proximity.
According to the Wall Street Journal, which consulted with employment lawyers and other workplace experts, the answer can be a moving target. In general, employers don’t have to allow their workers to telecommute, even if employees are uneasy about doing so. However, if the government orders a quarantine, the employer will be harder pressed from a legal standpoint to force employees to show up.
Workers whose jobs require them to be in close contact with customers can refuse if they feel working is endangering their health. In doing so, they are also protected from any retaliation from the employer for raising concerns or acting on them. But such safety concerns fall into murky grounds if employers act reasonably by providing employees with necessary training and protection (gloves, mask, etc.) against safety concerns, like COVID-19.
As for employees who believe they caught COVID-19 while at work and want to hold their employer liable, the onus is on them to prove that’s where they contracted the infection and not from another source. And that can be difficult.
And while employees may not be legally obligated to tell their employer if they have COVID-19, they have an ethical one to do so. After all, their coworkers deserve to know so they can get checked and limit the chances of them spreading the virus to others.
Employment law is a complex practice covering the rights, obligations, and responsibilities of an employer and its employees. Employers are also bound to federal and state labor laws and regulations that govern workplace safety and serve to protect the health and well-being of workers. However, employees may find themselves working under intolerable conditions for other reasons. Discrimination because of race, age, disability, sex, and other parts of a person’s personal identity are often the subject of hostile workplace claims. Sexual harassment and other forms of aggression and intimidation on the job also make for a hostile workplace.
Workers are often afraid to report problems or complain out of fear of losing their job or otherwise being retaliated against. Sometimes they feel corporate culture supports the climate of abuse, and that those in charge will just turn a blind eye. Attorneys who handle claims in the area of employment law can help a worker navigate this complicated situation.
If you think you have been a victim of workplace safety violations related to coronavirus concerns, it is important to seek the immediate advice of an employment lawyer. Contact Larry Golston, Lauren Miles or Leon Hampton, lawyers in our firm’s Consumer Fraud & Commercial Litigation Section to discuss a possible claim.