What to know about returning to work after coronavirus
States have eased aspects of their stay-at-home orders—and as businesses reopen, people are starting to return to their jobs.
The country may be in the process of reopening, but the COVID-19 outbreak is far from over. Projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show deaths from the virus continuing to climb through the summer, while several states may experience increased infection rates even as national estimates decline.
Still, all 50 states have eased aspects of their stay-at-home orders—and as businesses reopen and furloughed employees are back on the job, people are starting to return to their work routine. That’s left workers around the country with urgent questions about their rights should their employer ask them to return in the midst of the pandemic.
What employers are required to do
“Broadly speaking, employers should take steps to make employees feel safe to come to work,” says Larry Cary, a founding partner of Cary Kane LLP, a law firm in Manhattan dedicated to representing workers and employees with workplace issues, as well as unions. “Requiring that all employees and customers or visitors wear masks is necessary. Temperatures should be taken of all when they arrive and those with a fever sent home. Social distancing in the work site must be thought out and implemented to the maximum degree.”
Specific state requirements vary in terms of employee protections during COVID-19 (mandatory masks for customers are an especially sticky subject). But make no mistake: If your employer asks you to comply with temperature checks or wear PPE on the job, you probably need to do so (although they should provide the gear). In general, Cary says, businesses taking steps to ensure the safety of their workers are protecting their interests as well as yours. After all, they’re less likely to lose a lawsuit about a sick employee if there’s only a slim chance they caught it on the job.
Do you have to return to work?
Federal law protects employees who cannot go back to work either because they have a confirmed case of COVID-19 or need to care for children experiencing school closure due to the virus. There are a couple of caveats here: Depending on state laws, your employer must have fewer than 500 employees and can’t be a healthcare institution. If you’re receiving unemployment, those benefits could also be affected.
“It is important to note that an employee who refuses to return to work may lose their unemployment benefits, absent a reasonable particularized fear of contracting the disease,” Cary says. “A general fear is not enough to be able to keep the benefit. Whether an excuse for refusing to go back to work will still allow an employee to keep benefits may vary state by state.”
What if you get sick at work?
If you have COVID-19 or one of its symptoms, your employer can legally require you to go home, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). However, this is entirely distinct from a business sending someone home because of a disease constituting a disability. In this case, accommodations must be made allowing the employee to perform the job’s essential functions—no different than in non-pandemic times.
One final note: If you feel your employer is not following through on their health and safety requirements as you return to work, you can lodge a formal complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Additionally, whistleblower laws protect workers from any retaliation from the employer.
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This article is not intended as a substitute for professional legal advice. Always seek the advice of an attorney regarding any legal questions you may have.