My Work Is Unsafe Because of COVID-19. What Are My Rights?
In general, employers are obligated to take reasonable precautions to ensure a safe environment for their employees. But what does that mean exactly? Are employers required to take all precautions to prevent harm to employees in the workplace, including harm from a disease like COVID-19?
Are There Specific Provisions on Employer Obligations During a Pandemic?
Yes. Federal law obligates employers to promote workplace safety through the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). This Act mainly aims to protect employees from chemical, biological, and physical hazards.
Although the OSH Act categorizes infectious diseases under biological hazards, it doesn't specifically talk about COVID-19 and your rights as an employee.
OSHA's Position on COVID-19
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued non-binding guidance that addresses employers' responsibilities to their employees regarding COVID-19. This guidance classifies employees into four risk categories: low exposure, medium exposure, high exposure, and very high exposure.
Low Exposure Risk
Office employees and others who typically have minimal contact with the public are categorized under this group.
In such cases, OSHA recommends employers follow the steps outlined in the guidance to all employers. These steps include:
- Coming up with a plan to adequately prepare and respond to the disease
- Preparing prevention measures
- Having policies and procedures on how to identify and isolate sick people
- Following existing OSHA requirements regarding infectious diseases
Medium Exposure Risk
This group includes employees whose work requires them to maintain multiple contacts with the public. Examples include people working in schools, grocery stores, and retail.
Employers in this group should follow the general recommendations set out in the guidelines to ensure their employees' safety. In addition to that, employers should:
- Consider installing physical barriers between employees and the general public
- Offer face masks to ill employees
- Provide personal protective equipment (PPE), depending on the employee's work
- Limit the general public's access to the employee by offering alternatives such as drive-throughs and teleworking
High Exposure Risk
Health care support staff and medical transport staff who are exposed to pandemic patients are included in this category. Those who perform autopsies on patients with coronavirus are also considered high exposure risk employees. See the recommended guidance for high and very high exposure risk employees in the next section.
Very High Exposure Risk
This group consists of people who are healthcare employees that are treating patients that are diagnosed with or are suspected of having COVID-19. It also includes lab technicians who handle specimens of coronavirus patients.
For employees with high and very high exposure risk, OSHA recommends:
- Following the general guidelines outlined above
- Isolating patients with known or suspected cases of COVID-19
- Providing workers with proper training and education
- Providing hand sanitizer with 60% and above alcohol level to emergency responders and staff
- Providing personal protective equipment
- Offering medical monitoring of employees
Can I File a Complaint With OSHA Because of the Coronavirus?
If you feel your workplace is unsafe, the first thing you should do is inform your employer and request they address it appropriately.
If the employer fails to do that, the next thing you should do is document everything to show how your workplace is unsafe. After that, you can file a complaint (attaching the evidence) with OSHA or your state, if your state has a worker-safety program.
Note: your employer is prohibited by law from taking any retaliatory measures as a response to your complaint.
OSHA will review your complaint. If your claim is valid, it will take the appropriate measures, including workplace inspections and requiring the employer to be compliant.
Can I Refuse to Go to Work If My Workplace Is Unsafe Because of COVID-19?
If you fear there is a risk of death or serious physical harm if you continue working, then you have a right to refuse to go to work. OSHA lists the conditions that must be fulfilled for you to have the legal right to refuse to go to work. These conditions include:
- The employer failed to address the imminent harm the workplace brings
- You are stopping work in good faith, and
- There isn't enough time to use other alternatives (such as filing a complaint with OSHA)
When it comes to COVID-19, you may have a right to refuse to work if you can show there is a serious risk of exposure to the virus, and your employer failed to remedy the problem. Be sure to document everything showing how you are exposed to this pandemic in your workplace. But note that you have to fulfill all the requirements set out in the Act to legally refuse to work.
Will I Still Be Paid If I Refuse to Go to Work Because of Health Concerns?
Not necessarily. OSHA does not obligate employers to pay their employees if they refuse to work, even if their claim is justified.
Can I Get Unemployment If I Choose to Be Laid Off?
It depends. The department of labor has issued new guidance on unemployment insurance for employees who lost their jobs because of COVID-19. According to the guidelines, employees will qualify for unemployment insurance if:
- The workplace temporarily shuts down because of COVID-19, resulting in employees losing their job
- The employee is quarantined
- The employee does not go to work because of the risk of exposure to the virus
- The employee can't go to work because they are taking care of a family member
In addition to the above, you should also make sure you meet your state's unemployment benefit rules. Make sure to research your state's laws as they determine the specifics of your unemployment benefits. State laws generally determine:
- If you are eligible to get benefits
- How much you get paid
- How long you can receive benefits
What If I Quit?
Quitting a job may be tricky since you must show good cause to receive unemployment benefits. Good cause for the purposes of COVID-19 may include:
- Your workplace is endangering your health because of its exposure to the virus
- You're taking care of a sick relative, who got infected with the virus
The Federal Government's Response
As a response to the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government also passed a stimulus bill making it easier to qualify for unemployment. According to this bill, many who wouldn't typically qualify are now eligible for unemployment. These groups include self-employed workers and part-time workers.
The bill also gives you an additional $600 on top of what you would generally get from your state. These benefits will last until the end of July.
States, on average, give about 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. This bill, however, extends this time by providing unemployed workers an additional 13 weeks to collect benefits, with a maximum of 39 weeks.
Is Your Workplace Unsafe Because of COVID-19? An Attorney Can Help
Your employer is obligated to maintain a safe environment for you to work in. If you feel like you are at risk of exposure and don't know how to address the problem, speak to an experienced employment law attorney to ensure your rights are protected.