COVID-19 at Work: Your Legal Rights


COVID-19 at Work: Your Legal Rights and Responsibilities

Answers to frequently asked questions about coronavirus in the workplace. A pair of lawyers who specialize in employment law weigh in with some practical advice for workers and business owners alike.

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The coronavirus has become a sneak attack in slow motion on the American workforce. Fear has become the operative word, not only of falling ill, but the impact this virus is having on our economy, on jobs.

SEE ALSO: 33 Major U.S. Companies Hiring Now to Meet Coronavirus Demand

Employment law attorneys are swamped by calls from business owner clients, wondering what they are allowed to do in an effort to keep their employees safe and their doors open.

I ran the following questions by two attorneys in Bakersfield, Calif., who specialize in employment law: Dan Klingenberger and Jay Rosenlieb. They provide a global perspective to these issues challenging American businesses today.

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Do workers have a right to be provided with protective equipment on the job?

Working at home is not an option in my line of work. My employer isn’t providing the workers with gloves or masks: We have to bring our own. Do workers have a right to be provided with protective equipment on the job?


Rosenlieb: Yes. The federal OSHA General Duty Clause requires that an employer provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm — this includes injury from infectious diseases such as COVID-19. (OSHA-approved state plans will have similar or more protective standards.) Employers are obligated to provide their workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to keep them safe while performing their jobs. It should be noted that an employee cannot demand specific PPE or PPE that is not deemed appropriate for the exposure.

Klingenberger: The OSHA general duty clause certainly creates an obligation for employers to provide a safe workplace and to provide necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). However, it is not entirely clear how those obligations apply in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. An employer’s obligations may vary depending on the work being performed. Health care workers, for example, likely need a higher level of protection than a retail worker, although both are extremely important and both are providing services in a critical time.

Guidance from OSHA during the past few weeks recognizes that difference in protection needed for various industries. The OSHA COVID-19 Guidance for Retail Workers provides tips for employers “in the retail industry (e.g., pharmacies, supermarkets, and big box stores)” to “help reduce your employees’ risk of exposure to the coronavirus.” The tips include: “Allow workers to wear masks over their nose and mouth to prevent them from spreading the virus.”

Why did OSHA choose the word “allow” rather than “require” in the tips for retail workers? The choice likely reflects several considerations:

  • First, very few masks or face coverings would actually filter out coronavirus. Masks and face coverings primarily serve the purpose of avoiding spread by the person wearing the mask. Assuming that is true, masks, and perhaps gloves, may protect the customers, but would not accomplish the objective of protecting the employee and, therefore, may not be PPE.
  • Second, other practices are better served to protect the employee, e.g. social distancing, frequent hand washing, do not touch face, and disinfecting work area.
  • Third, obtaining masks and gloves for employees may be very difficult due to high demand.

I don't feel safe at work: Can I speak up without worry?

The company, where I work, doesn’t seem to be taking this crisis seriously enough. There have been no real efforts made to ensure social distancing in the workplace, other than some signs and tape marks on the floor, which are not enforced. It doesn’t feel safe, but I fear retaliation if I speak up. What should I do?

Rosenlieb: An employer is obligated to take such steps as are required by OSHA or an OSHA approved state plan, not more. In other words, an employee who doesn’t “feel” safe has little basis to demand further protection if, in fact, the employer is fully compliant with its state and federal safety obligations. In the event that the employer has policies in place, but the policies are not followed, the employee will have a basis for a complaint.

Klingenberger: I agree. Oftentimes employees would like to see more done by an employer when the employer is actually fully compliant. As has been said many times, these are unprecedented times. Business owners and each of us as individuals are making decisions in a world of uncertainty. On a personal, local and national scale we are asking, have we done enough? Sometimes, there is strength in numbers. If some of your co-employees share your concerns, consider going with another employee to express those concerns about safety in a professional manner to your employer. Offering ideas on solutions may help the conversation.

Can I refuse to work overtime?

I’m in an industry where demand is currently skyrocketing, and workers are being pushed to the brink. Can I refuse to work overtime?


Rosenlieb: No. There are, however, a couple of exceptions. First, if a lack of sleep or fatigue creates demonstrable safety concerns, the employee may refuse to work if he or she has a good faith belief that the conditions create an imminent risk of serious injury or death. Second, if the employee is part of a workplace covered by a collective bargaining agreement, the employee may be excused from working “mandatory” overtime.

Klingenberger: Jay’s answer is spot on. Unfortunately, we are in situation where some employees are working far more than they would like and others who would love to be back at work in any capacity.

Can your employer force you to go to work?

Klingenberger: The answer would depend on the circumstances. If there has been evidence of spread in the workplace, for example, someone has it, an employer could not force the other employees to come to work in that environment, as there is a direct threat of contamination. But with no evidence of exposure, or the exposure does not impact all employees, then, the employer can insist that people come to work.

Rosenlieb: In the event of an immediate or imminent danger, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides that an employee can refuse to work. Further, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects concerted activity by employees. Concerted activity includes a refusal to work because of unsafe working conditions.


Can you be fired/disciplined if you refuse to go to work?

I asked, “What if there is no legitimate reason to not come to work, but an employee still refuses to show up. Could this result in discipline?”

Klingenberger: Yes, that is possible, but in today’s COVID-19 environment, an understanding employer could tell an employee, ‘If you do not want to come to work for the time being, you may use vacation, sick leave or other time-off benefits,’ if that is a benefit the employer offers. The employer also has to balance other considerations, such as fairness to other employees and the need to get the work done.

Rosenlieb: While an employer could take more serious action, those who care about their employees should work with them to address their concerns and find alternatives to being present at the office, if possible. And we are seeing that with a large increase in people working from home, telecommuting.

What should you do if an employee comes to work sick because they need the money?

Klingenberger: If an employee comes to work who is obviously ill and showing symptoms of coronavirus, the employer should send the employee home because of the risk to others. If the employee misses work because of having the virus or must be quarantined, many states, including California, have made unemployment insurance benefits available for days missed or reduced hours that might not normally be available.

Rosenlieb: An employee who presents at work with symptoms of a contagious illness can be sent home. The employer is not obligated to provide work to an employee who presents with symptoms of a contagious disease. On the other hand, an employer cannot send an employee home simply because the employee is a member of a high-risk group — someone who is 65 years old and older or has underlying health conditions. This would be discrimination on the basis of protected class status.

See Also: Can My Boss Do That?

What happens if the governor or president orders you to shut your business? Do you have any options other than to follow the order?

Note: Not only has the president issued executive orders, which have shut down many businesses in the country, but state governors are also issuing similar mandatory orders. Constitutional lawyers will tell you that the government has an inherent power and duty to protect the population, especially in areas of health.

Klingenberger: The imposition of quarantine, shelter in place and business closure orders are examples of the state’s ability to exercise its police power. Failure to comply may be a misdemeanor and subject the company to fines. Time will tell whether tax and other forms of relief will be granted to help deal with the enormous financial losses.

Rosenlieb: There is no choice but to follow those mandatory orders or face fines.

Can you turn away a customer who is coughing?

Both lawyers agree there is no obligation to serve everyone, unless you are avoiding someone for clearly illegal reasons, such as race, religion or national origin. They equally believe a polite way of dealing with a customer who is coughing would be for restaurant employees to say, “We are concerned, given what is going on with the coronavirus. If you will please step outside, I will bring you the food.”

Do you have a legal responsibility to inform people you have come into contact with if you later test positive?

While neither attorney was aware of a legal obligation to personally inform people that you have been tested positive, they observed that health departments ask every person infected to list all the people they have been in close contact with.

And while I do not know of a legal duty in the United States of self-reporting to others, it is not much of a stretch to compare their silence now with that of people who have been jailed for knowingly spreading herpes and AIDS.

To me, knowingly exposing those around you to the virus could be seen as an assault and battery. History proves that correct with the story of Typhoid Mary, an Irish cook believed to have infected 51 people with typhoid fever, several of whom died.

If you are not familiar with her story, it is worth looking up, as you will find a cast of characters right out of a horror movie, including Mary herself, who was aware of the danger she posed to others and yet continued to work as a cook, literally killing people.

She was the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the disease. Considering they did not have disability insurance in place in those years to give her an income, she could not stop working as a cook — exposing others to the disease. She was twice forcibly isolated by authorities, and died after a total of nearly three decades in isolation.

What is your legal responsibility if you start to get an inkling that you are getting symptoms?

Klingenberger: I am not aware of a requirement in OSHA or various federal safety laws where someone is required to make this disclosure. Employees are always encouraged to disclose those things, and especially on-the-job injuries. There can be ramifications if they don’t. For example, they hurt their back and do not disclose it for six months, their workers’ compensation claim could be denied for a failure to report it in a timely fashion.”

Rosenlieb: While not a violation of a law, if the company had a policy requiring employees who become ill with the flu, even the common cold, to report this to HR, and if that were violated, it could result in discipline for violation of an order.

Say you are ordered to stay home – quarantined – by the health department. What would happen if you disobeyed?

Both attorneys agree that the employee could face termination.

What if you know people who are doing risky things on the job, exposing co-workers to harm. Do you have a responsibility to do something about it?

And, once more, there was agreement by both Klingenberger and Rosenlieb as to what employers and employees need to do when faced with a co-worker who cares little for his or her colleagues.

“We all should hope that concerned co-workers would report dangerous behavior of whatever type, physical or health-wise,” commented Klingenberger.

“Today we all have a duty to each other to act prudently and safely. Any employee who puts co-workers in harm’s way should face potential termination. Our country is facing one of its greatest health threats in over a century. We need to watch out for each other more so than at any other time in memory,” Rosenlieb strongly maintains.

See Also: How to Survive the Economic Fallout from COVID-19

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge.

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