Can I Be Fired for Refusing to Work Because of COVID-19?

Short Answer: As with many legal questions, “it depends.”

Long Answer: Your individual circumstance will dictate whether you may have a legal right to refuse to work because of COVID-19. There are several circumstances wherein you may have a legal right to refuse to work because of COVID-19. There are other circumstances wherein your refusal to work because of COVID-19 may not be legally protected. This post provides examples of a few common scenarios to help clarify the varying circumstances.

Example 1: You work in a non-essential business and, as such, you are required to stay home because of California’s and/or San Diego’s stay home orders relating to COVID-19. However, you can telework from home. Absent other considerations (explained in examples below), your employer may have a legal right to fire you if you refuse to work (assuming you are an at-will employee and your employer has complied with other standard legal requirements).

Example 2: You work in a non-essential business and, as such, you are required to stay home because of California’s and/or San Diego’s stay home orders relating to COVID-19. However, you can telework from home. But you are responsible for caring for a child whose school or place of care is closed (or childcare provider is unavailable) for reasons related to COVID-19, making it unfeasible for you to telework. Under this circumstance, you would most likely be eligible for job-protected paid leave under the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act. See our blog post here to learn more about your rights under this act. If your employer is requiring you to work despite this circumstance, and fires you for refusing to work, the firing may be unlawful. Similarly, if your employer is requiring you to work under the following circumstances, and fires you for refusing to work, the firing may be unlawful, if you are unable to telework because of these circumstances: (a) you have been advised by a health care professional to self-quarantine related to COVID-19; (b) you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking medical diagnosis; (c) you are caring for someone described in (a) or (b); or (d) some other extenuating circumstance makes it infeasible to telework (e.g., power outage).

Example 3: You work in a non-essential business and, as such, you are required to stay home because of California’s and/or San Diego’s stay home orders relating to COVID-19. However, in violation of the stay home orders, your employer is forcing you to report to the worksite during the pandemic. A willful violation of California’s stay home order is a misdemeanor in violation of Government Code §8665. As such, if your employer fires you for refusing to report to the worksite in this scenario, you may have a wrongful termination claim.

Example 4: You work in an “essential” business that is exempt from the stay home orders and, thus, your employer is requiring you to report to the worksite. If you refuse to work because of COVID-19 in this circumstance, whether your employer can legally fire you may depend on the specific nature of your job and how safe and healthy your employer is making the workplace. Whether there is a pandemic or not, employers are required to provide a safe and healthy workplace in compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) regulations. With respect to COVID-19, at a minimum, employers are expected to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) and OSHA, as well as State and local government guidelines, regulations, and orders, to maintain a safe workplace. Precautions must be taken to limit exposure to COVID-19, including infection prevention measures and response protocols as outlined by OSHA in its Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. Extra precautions must be taken for employees who are “at risk” for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 (e.g., older adults and people who have severe underlying chronic medical conditions like heart or lung disease, or diabetes). The preventative measures and protocols implemented may vary from employer to employer, depending on the nature of the workplace and job. For example, the necessary precautions needed at a worksite with high person-to-person contact (e.g., a grocery store) may be different than that of a small accounting office. But all worksites must be safe and healthy.

Despite the societal and practical needs for essential workers to report to work to ensure continuity of operations of essential functions (e.g., food, healthcare, etc.), if the workplace is objectively unsafe or unhealthy, and your employer is nevertheless forcing you to report to work, it could be in violation of OSHA and California’s labor laws, such as Labor Code §§6400, 6402 (“No employer shall require, or permit any employee to go or be in any employment or place of employment which is not safe and healthful.”). If the workplace is not safe in violation of OSHA regulations, it may be unlawful for your employer to fire you for refusing to work.

If you feel your employer is forcing you to work in an unsafe or unhealthy workplace, contact attorneys at Haggequist & Eck, LLP to learn more about your rights.

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