Coronavirus, Your Job, and Your Rights: A Legal Overview

Right now, many workers are walking a tightrope. On one hand, they need to go to work to ensure their continued financial security. But, on the other hand, they want to remain safe from COVID-19. 

This dilemma is throwing up some interesting questions concerning their legal rights in the workplace. In this article, we’re going to take a look at what the law says regarding workplace health and safety and the coronavirus. 

Furloughs and Layoffs

Due to the financial repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, many have been furloughed or laid off. A layoff is where an employer decides that they no longer require an employee’s services, whether now or in the future, and employment is simply terminated.

A furlough, on the other hand, is a situation in which a company suspends an employee from work for a limited amount of time until they can return to productive employment. Employees who are furloughed, therefore, expect to be able to return to work once the period comes to an end.

Furloughs may be a good option for employers who want to keep their employees but have no choice but to close operations under present conditions. Furloughed employees can collect unemployment as well as seek other work, and companies generally continue benefits for furloughed employees.

Your Right to Safety

Under US law, you have a right to safety at work. Employers are not allowed to put you in dangerous situations or do anything that might put your health at risk. 

When it comes to infectious diseases, though, the law is a little more vague. Even though viral infections can potentially seriously affect your health, it is difficult to establish whether they are the fault of an employer. You could, for instance, pick up coronavirus from work, but you could have just as easily gotten it from a family member or while using public transport. 

The OSHA updated some of its rules regarding worker injuries because of infection after the 2009 H1N1 flu scare. Specific worker rights include the ability to access necessary safety gear, report work-related illnesses and injuries, and ask the OHSA to inspect the premises. Frontline workers should have access to protective gear and have their workplace regularly sanitized especially for medical professionals. Apart from their uniforms and medical scrubs, they should also have a steady supply of personal protective equipment.

Currently, it is not clear whether these rights will apply to COVID-19 patients. The situation could change, however, if the outbreak gets worse or if officials decide to enact a state of emergency.

Workers’ Compensation

Whether COVID-19 qualifies as an occupational injury depends very much on the decisions of jurisdictions and lawmakers over the coming months. At the moment, diseases have to be “occupational” in nature to qualify for workers’ compensation. In other words, they must reflect the nature of the work (such as builders contracting aspergillosis for asbestos). COVID-19 doesn’t automatically fall into this category because it doesn’t relate to any specific line of work. People are at risk of infection, whether they are in the workplace or not. 

In that sense, it is similar to the flu and other infectious diseases. Workers’ compensation laws do not cover these at present. 

However, there are exceptions. Nurses, doctors, and other people working in the healthcare industry may be able to apply for compensation if they get COVID-19 because of increased exposure. But even here, there is uncertainty, underscoring the importance of working with a reputable and professional workers’ compensation attorney when navigating a COVID-related workers’ compensation claim.