Understanding Employee Rights During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The coronavirus has upended life as we know it. That includes the workplace. In this stressful and confusing time, it may be challenging to understand what your boss can legally require you to do. As attorneys that specialize in employee rights, Wenzel Fenton Cabassa, P.A., is here to keep you updated with the latest information to help you through the coronavirus pandemic.
Workplace Rights and Telecommuting
With person to person spread of coronavirus, more people are working from home than ever before to reduce the risk of exposure. But there are questions that many workers have about employee rights regarding telecommuting.
“Do I have the legal right to work from home?”
Generally speaking, no. Workers are not guaranteed rights under employment law to be able to telecommute. Employers do not have an obligation to offer you this option. That being said, there is an exception to this — they still have to follow the parameters of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If an employee has qualified to work from home under the ADA, the employer must be in compliance with the law.
In addition, if there is a government-mandated quarantine, an employer may have more of a legal burden to allow telecommuting, if possible, during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Do I have to work from home if my boss tells me to even though I believe I am healthy and not at risk?”
As long as their actions are not determined to be discriminatory, employers do have the right to insist you work from home if that becomes their policy. Discrimination in the workplace is against the law. There are some specifics here that employees should be aware of regarding workplace rights. An employer could require people who have recently traveled to countries with large outbreaks such as China, Italy, and Iran to work from home for a certain period of time without violating employee rights against workplace discrimination.
Employers must also follow workers’ rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). They cannot insist that employees over 70 work from home, but it is always important for older workers to consider any risk factors they may personally have that could make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Vacations and Traveling
Many employees get a package of benefits that includes paid time off for taking vacations and traveling. Here are some common questions related to this subject during the coronavirus pandemic:
“Does my employer have the right to make me work when I have a previously scheduled and approved vacation?”
The short answer is yes — with just a few exceptions. For the most part, even though you are given vacation time, employers are not federally mandated to provide it to you. In some cases, employers are having a shortage of workers and are requesting (or demanding) people cancel their vacations and come to work. Unless you are part of a union or another employment contract that protects your legal right to a vacation, it is not part of your employee rights to get that time off.
Understandably, this is not necessarily good for morale, and most employers will not take this step unless it is an emergency. Also, if they do ask you to cancel travel plans, they are not legally required to reimburse you for the expenses — but it is appropriate to make a request.
“Is it legal for my employer to tell me to cancel my travel plans or limit where I go?”
Your workplace/boss cannot control what you do with your personal time. They can communicate recommendations, such as limiting travel to high-risk areas where the coronavirus is prevalent and following any government-mandated guidelines. This also includes local travel, such as to churches and the grocery store. Workers should follow the guidance of leading scientific institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) for personal travel and public activities. This is highly recommended during public health crises such as the coronavirus.
In the Workplace
From safety to liability, there are issues surrounding employee rights on the job that is on the minds of many Americans.
“Am I legally protected if I say I won’t work in close contact with the public?”
There are laws in place that protect workers from retaliation by their employers if they have a complaint about safety. With so many types of jobs where you work with customers, from restaurants to retail and more, it is reasonable to be concerned about safety during a public health crisis. You are protected under the law if you make a complaint about workplace safety.
During the coronavirus pandemic, many employers are making reasonable efforts to protect their employees with disinfecting procedures and personal protective equipment (PPE). Making these efforts may offer them some legal protections under the law at this time when it comes to requiring an employee to work with customers.
“Can I be required to travel for my work?”
With many states having “at-will” employment, a lot of employers have the right to fire people for any reason that is not illegal. That can include making people travel for work. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, much effort is being focused on getting tasks completed virtually, using online platforms for business meetings. It is recommended that employees communicate with their employers if they are concerned about traveling for work to find a virtual solution, if possible. Currently, there are ongoing legal conversations about the inherent issues of safety, travel, and employee rights. Depending on the circumstances, it could be illegal for employers to require employees to travel to unsafe locations in a global health crisis such as coronavirus.
Wenzel Fenton Cabassa, P.A. — Employee Rights Attorneys
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Wenzel Fenton Cabassa, P.A., are employee rights attorneys that care deeply about Florida workers and strive to give you the information you need for you and your family. We are here for you during these difficult times.
Please Note: At the time this article was written, the information contained within it was current based on the prevailing law at the time. Laws and precedents are subject to change, so this information may not be up to date. Always speak with a law firm regarding any legal situation to get the most current information available.