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As the numbers of COVID-19 infections continue to climb, employment attorneys say fearful workers have limited rights in refusing to work, while employers have legal obligations to provide a safe place to work.
It’s an intersection legal experts say calls for enhanced communication between companies and their workers and a constant adherence to evolving state and federal laws guiding work during the pandemic.
“Companies need to assure employees they are on top of this; it goes a long way,” said Matt Hinton, New York-based partner for risk consulting firm Control Risks Ltd. He says the issue is one to watch as more states lift restrictions.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have both issued guidelines on workplace safely. As of Wednesday, at least one state — Oregon — is gearing up to create permanent workplace safety guidelines for infectious diseases.
A majority of employers say they have plans in place. And safety professionals are telling employers to encourage employee engagement in safety protocols. Yet concerns are growing over whether employers are doing enough. On Monday, unions representing some 60,000 Nevada hospitality workers sued three casino properties over alleged unsafe working conditions related to the coronavirus.
Worker fear is a genuine concern, but it’s not enough to refuse work, said Courtney Malveaux, Richmond, Virginia-based principal and attorney with Jackson Lewis P.C.
The rule is a worker must have a “specific” concern, he said. An example would be if the workplace is not clean, or the worksite is not following local regulations such as requiring individuals to wear masks.
“A generalized fear of COVID does not provide a basis for refusing to work; it has to be a specific fear of a circumstance at that employee’s workplace,” Mr. Malveaux said. “It also has to be a fear that is made in good faith and is reasonable to others.”
An employee with a compromised immune system or other health issue that puts him or her at risk for COVID-19 complications could be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which would require the employer to work to find the employee an accommodation, such as an alternative work environment, he said. Any concern with work “must be specific to the workplace or the employee” with a health condition, he said.
Maurice Emsellem, Berkeley, California-based program director of the National Employment Law Project, said worker rights advocates are calling on the federal government to outline more specific guidelines for those who refuse work under certain conditions. He said that what is in place among OSHA, CDC and ADA may not be enough.
There is also concern that state unemployment agencies are not keeping up with the changing landscape. “(Workers) are vulnerable because they lose their unemployment benefits if the state agencies don’t do the right thing,” he said. “In general, workers have to know they can refuse unsafe work.” In most states, a worker who quits a job cannot collect unemployment benefits.
Expect litigation, said Maxfield Marquardt, Los Angeles-based counsel and associate director for regulatory affairs at Trusaic Inc., a compliance technology company. Many state laws create parameters for employees to work “at will,” he said.
“An employee has the right to not show up for work,” he said. “But will they keep their jobs? … An employer can say, ‘You want to work? Come in.’”
Disagreements over whether conditions are safe, or whether an employer is following safe guidelines, are “part of the reason you are going to see a lot of litigation,” Mr. Marquardt said. “Litigation and regulatory guidance are evolving at a fast pace. OSHA could change its guidelines Friday; the CDC may change its guidelines again.” How can companies avoid the potential legal mess? Pay attention and consider the federal, state and local workplace mandates as “the bare minimum” in ensuring safe working conditions, Mr. Hinton said. “The employee sentiment is the important piece,” he said. “Have a path for your employees to raise their hand and say, ‘This isn’t working.’”
Listening to employees will be key, said Kim Brunell, Washington-based associate director at Control Risks. “You have to have a collaborative approach to safety,” she said. “Employers that do that best consider the context of a particular work environment.”