Do I Have to Work If I Have an Underlying Medical Condition During COVID-19?

Based on currently available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who have serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. These conditions include chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, serious heart conditions, immunocompromised conditions (e.g., cancer, smoking, bone marrow or organ transplants, HIV or AIDS, use of immune weakening medications, or other immune deficiencies), severe obesity, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and/or liver disease.

What if you’re an essential worker and have to continue working despite stay-at-home orders and your underlying medical condition?

The CDC has advised that those at higher risk need to take extra precautions, including by staying home. The CDC has also recommended high risk individuals check with local public health officials. The San Diego Health Officer has advised that a “strong recommendation is made” that all person who have “a chronic underlying condition, or have a compromised immune system self-quarantine themselves at home or other suitable location.” The Orange County Health Officer’s order is in accord. Employers are expected to follow guidance from the CDC, as well as State and local government guidelines, regulations, and orders, to maintain a safe workplace.

Thus, if you have a serious health condition and your employer is nevertheless making you work during COVID-19, you may have the right to a reasonable accommodation, e.g., teleworking. If that is not an option, then you may be entitled to a temporary leave of absence. If your employer refuses to offer you such an accommodation which results in the termination of your employment, you may have a wrongful termination claim against your employer.

More specifically, 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 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“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.”). Your employer could also be in violation of California’s anti-discrimination laws which require employers to accommodate employees with disabilities and/or medical conditions. These laws apply even if you work for an essential business. Based on the objective evidence offered by the CDC and local public health officials, it is not safe for most individuals with serious medical conditions to report to most workplaces. As such, if you have a serious medical condition and your employer is refusing to allow you to work from home and/or to take a temporary leave of absence, you may have a legal claim.

If you feel your employer is forcing you to work in an unsafe or unhealthy workplace, contact the attorneys at Haeggquist & Eck, LLP or by calling (619) 468-5222 to learn more about your rights.

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