Coronavirus and the Workplace: What You Need to Know

Coronavirus & the Workplace: What You Need to Know

Workers likely have many questions about what to do during a pandemic like the one we are currently facing with the Coronavirus, COVID-19. You may simply want to know more about COVID-19 and how it spreads, symptoms, prevention and treatment, stigma and resilience, and what to do if you are sick.

You may also have questions about how COVID-19 affects your employment and workplace. This post addresses some of these issues and provides links to helpful resources. Information is being updated daily, and there is still much unknown about COVID-19. Current knowledge is based on what is known from publicly available sources to date.

What is Coronavirus Disease of 2019 (COVID-19)?

COVID-19 is a virus that causes respiratory illness. Symptoms can be mild to severe, ranging from a cough, fever, chills, and difficulty breathing to pneumonia, organ failure, and in some cases death. It is a new strain of “coronavirus,” which gets its name because of its crownlike shape.

COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and has since spread worldwide. The disease can spread from person-to-person through small droplets from the nose or mouth, which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets can land on objects and surfaces allowing other people to catch the virus by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth.

Below is a list of resources to learn more about COVID-19, how it spreads, prevention and treatment, and related information:

According to the CDC, older adults and people who have severe underlying chronic medical conditions like heart or lung disease, or diabetes seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19. Click here for more information.

COVID-19 & Your Employment

As an employee, you may have many questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacts your employment. For example, you may be wondering what happens if your child’s school is canceled because of the pandemic and you must stay home to care for him or her? Is your job protected during this time? Are you eligible for paid time off?

You may also have questions about whether your job will be protected should you or one of your family members become ill because of COVID-19. You may also be wondering if you will continue to have to report to work or whether telecommuting or other arrangements to limit exposure are options. What happens if you catch COVID-19 while on a work trip – are you covered by workers’ compensation? The purpose of this post is to make it easier to understand answers to these questions and to direct you to available resources.

In this regard, several agencies are working hard to keep workers, employers, and families safe during this pandemic by providing guidance and resources. In addition to the CDC and the World Health Organization (“WHO”), the following agencies are providing workplace-specific guidance: Labor & Workforce Development Agency (“LWDA”), Cal/OSHA, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).

A Safe Workplace for All Employees

Workplace safety and health regulations in California require employers to protect workers from airborne infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Cal/OSHA has posted guidance to provide workers information on how to protect themselves.

Cal/OSHA recommends employers follow the recommendations from the CDC, some of which are included below:

  • Employees should be actively encouraged to stay home when sick
  • Employees with acute respiratory illness symptoms should be sent home immediately
  • Training should be provided on cough and sneeze etiquette, hand hygiene, avoidance of sharing items, providing tissues, sanitizers, no-touch disposal cans, and related issues
  • Perform routine environment cleaning
  • Checking CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices
  • Flexible worksites, telecommuting, and flexible work hours
  • Postponing or canceling large work-related meetings or events
  • Using other methods to minimize exposure
  • Washing facilities with an adequate supply of suitable cleaning agents, water, and single-use towels or blowers (which is required regardless of a pandemic)
  • Personal protective equipment

Your employer should be training you regarding the above, as well as ensuring you have a safe and healthy workplace. If there is a significant risk of exposure at your normal workplace, your employer must implement measures to prevent or reduce the hazard, including by possibly implementing telecommuting or other flexible arrangements.

Benefits & Rights for Employees Impacted by COVID-19

If you are impacted by COVID-19, what rights and benefits are you entitled to in the workplace? The answer to this question may be confusing. For example, what benefits are you entitled to if you are unable to work because of a medical quarantine or illness related to COVID-19?

Fortunately, the LWDA has created a centralized source of information to make it easier for workers to understand what resources and benefits they may be entitled to. However, for questions about leave-entitlements and pay, the first thing you should do if you are impacted by COVID-19, is to contact your employer’s human resources department to determine what employer-sponsored benefits you may be entitled to. You then want to learn about state-sponsored and related benefits, as detailed in the LWDA’s Summary Chart: Benefit for Workers Impacted by COVID-19.

For example, if you are unable to work because you are caring for an ill or quarantined family member with COVID-19 (certified by a medical professional), under the Paid Family Leave program, you may be entitled up to six weeks of benefit payments if you have a full or partial loss of wages. In this scenario, the amount of benefits is approximately 60 to 70 percent of wages (depending on income). The LWDA’s chart at the link above provides more information to make it easier to understand what resources may be available.

If you are an employee with a disability that puts you at high risk for complications with COVID-19 (e.g., an autoimmune disease, HIV, cancer, etc.), pursuant to the EEOC’s guidance, you may request telework or other options as a reasonable accommodation to reduce your chance of infection during a pandemic. Similarly, if you or a close family member becomes sick because of COVID-19 and are unable to work for a limited period, you may be eligible for job protection under federal and/or state leave laws (e.g., the Family Medical Leave Act) and anti-discrimination laws (e.g., the Fair Employment and Housing Act). In this scenario, you should contact an experienced employment law attorney, to better understand your rights.

What happens if you contract COVID-19 while at work or at a work-sponsored event? Will this result in a compensable workers’ compensation claim? It depends. The workers’ compensation system is a no-fault system, meaning if you suffer a workplace injury, you do not need to prove negligence on the part of the employer. Instead, you need only prove that the injury occurred at work and was proximately caused by your employment. However, determining whether the illness is “occupational,” and arose “out of and in the course of employment,” will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. In this scenario, you should contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney, to better understand your rights.

Below is a list of additional support services for workers:

What Can My Employer Ask Me to Do?

Can my employer send me home without pay if I display symptoms of COVID-19?

Yes. Generally, employers may not make an employee stay home without pay for a standard cold or flu, unless the employer can show the employee is a “direct threat” due to the medical condition or that the employee’s ability to perform essential job functions is impaired by the medical condition. Pursuant to the EEOC’s guidelines, assessment of whether an employee is a direct threat in the workplace must be based on objective facts. It cannot be based on irrational fears. However, during a “pandemic,” such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, the EEOC directs employers to rely on the latest CDC health assessments. Several state and local health organizations, including the CDC and Cal/OSHA, have issued assessments advising employers to send employees home if they show any symptoms of COVID-19.

Can my employer ask me questions to determine whether I have a compromised immune system or a chronic health condition?

No. An employer cannot ask a disability-related question where the response is likely to disclose the existence of a disability. Asking whether you have a compromised immune system may elicit a response disclosing a disability (e.g., HIV, cancer, etc.). However, an employer may ask if you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, such as a sore throat, fever, chills, and shortness of breath. Employers may give employees an ADA-Compliant Pre-Pandemic Employee Survey, however, to anticipate absenteeism during a pandemic.

If I travelled, may my employer require me to stay home for the virus’s incubation period, which is reportedly up to 14 days?

It depends. An employer may ask if you travelled to specific locations that the CDC has identified as high risk areas, and if you travelled to one of those locations, your employer may require you to stay home until it is clear you do not have pandemic influenza symptoms. If travelling, check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices and CDC’s Travel Information Page for latest guidance. If you feel you may have been exposed to COVID-19, the CDC has issued guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of potential exposure.

Your employer may not make determinations of risk based on your race, age, disability, or country of origin. Doing so could subject the employer to liability under the laws prohibiting discrimination.

If you or a family member have been impacted by COVID-19, and you feel your workplace rights have been taken advantage of, feel free to contact the workplace attorneys at Haeggquist & Eck, LLP.

If You Need an Attorney, Call Haeggquist & Eck, LLP

Our firm is dedicated to helping employees assert their rights. If you feel your rights as an employee were violated by an employer who took advantage of the confusion during the COVID-19 outbreak, reach out to Haeggquist & Eck, LLP for help.

Contact our firm online or call (619) 468-5222 to schedule a free consultation with one of our attorneys who may be able to help you.

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