Coronavirus (COVID-19), the Workplace, and Employee Rights

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic continues to increase around the world, employees everywhere are rightfully concerned about how it affects the workplace. The health and safety risk to workers is at an unprecedented level. Dynamics around workers’ rights and legal issues are complex, and many questions have been raised about what the pandemic of the coronavirus (COVID-19) means now and into the future.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Facts

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. The virus that causes COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus that was first identified during an investigation into an outbreak in Wuhan, China.” The disease spreads primarily through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes when people are in close contact with each other (within about 6 feet). The CDC also reports that it may be possible to contract the virus by touching a surface that has the virus on it, then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes. Symptoms of COVID-19 are mild to severe respiratory symptoms that include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Severe complications include pneumonia in both lungs, multi-organ failure, and in some cases, death. For information on prevention techniques and other comprehensive facts and recommendations regarding the disease, visit the CDC’s website.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Effects on the Workplace

Employers have a general duty to protect the health and safety of their employees in the workplace. This is mandated by federal law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), as well as state laws. Healthcare workers are the most at-risk employees, but other workers, such as hospitality and retail, have high-risk positions as well, while employees across all industries are vulnerable to the disease.
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Communication of Recommendations to Minimize Risk at Work is Vital

Employers need to keep their employees informed of the latest recommendations from both the CDC as well as state and local government officials. These vary in cities and counties across the state of Florida, as well as the rest of the United States. Some are more restrictive than others. Some of the measures that are being incorporated to limit risk to employees at work include:
  • Encouraging teleworking
  • Prohibiting business travel to areas of significant outbreak
  • Prohibiting all non-essential business travel
  • Instituting temporary office closures and large-scale remote working in areas of significant outbreak
  • Providing hand sanitizer and increasing cleaning procedures
  • Offering Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves and masks
Healthcare workers are certainly of utmost priority to protect, particularly regarding PPE. Other recommendations will continue to develop and evolve as the crisis unfolds.

Shutdowns and Employee Rights

  In the case of a temporary shutdown of a facility/workplace, there are federal and state worker notification statutes that exist to protect employee rights. The federal Worker Adjustment Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act) applies to employers with 100 or more employees to give a 60-day notice (with certain stipulations). However, the WARN Act does not apply to “natural disasters” or “unforeseeable business circumstances.” Pandemics are not included in the language of the WARN Act, but employers should try to give as much notice as possible if they foresee a shutdown.

On Discrimination at Work

  Employees in Florida and across the United States are protected from discrimination at work with various federal and state laws. That being said, if employers follow official guidelines, they can impose reasonable, fact-based restrictions if there is a direct threat to the health and safety of others, including restrictions on travel to or from certain countries.

Leave and Pay Issues

  The financial impact of COVID-19 is going to be monumental for employers and employees across the state of Florida and around the globe. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and state workers’ compensation laws will apply during the pandemic. Applications for unemployment are already on the rise at a significant pace and are projected to continue to do so, at least in the near future. Transparency in communications in what the definitions of the employers’ roles and what the employees’ roles are are vital in ensuring the processes are effective, and people who are laid off get paid what they are due under the employment laws.

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