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Home / More News / Must employers ensure a safe workplace? A Q&A on workers’ rights

Must employers ensure a safe workplace? A Q&A on workers’ rights

(VadymPastukh / Depositphotos.com)

(VadymPastukh / Depositphotos.com)

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 85,000 lives so far in the U.S. with no vaccine or cure in sight. Nevertheless, with stay-at-home orders lifting across the nation and businesses reopening, many employees will be returning to the workplace soon.

States including Alaska, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have at least partly lifted shutdown orders in recent days. On Wednesday, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order and bars and restaurants in the state have already started welcoming back crowds.

While no one wants to be furloughed or unemployed indefinitely, recent surveys show that Americans have mixed feelings about returning to work right now. A Bankrate survey notes that 55% of Americans believe businesses are reopening too soon and 43% say they will shop less in public than before the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines to help businesses as they reopen. The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), a workplace safety nonprofit, has provided some guidelines for retail, restaurants, salons, gyms and other service providers and their employees at its Back to Work Safely site. And USA TODAY’s reporters and columnists have answers to some common questions people have as businesses reopen:
Must employers ensure the workplace is safe? And will they be held liable if employees contract the virus?
While health care providers must follow federal safety guidelines to guard against contagion, other businesses are not obligated to do so, leaving it to states and localities to set standards, experts say.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to establish a workplace that’s “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” to employees. To meet that standard, OSHA is advising businesses to follow CDC guidelines, including instructing employees to keep six feet away from co-workers or customers, taking temperatures, disinfecting surfaces, and providing face masks, hand sanitizers and barriers when appropriate.

In most states, employees who can file a claim through workers’ compensation must take that route and relinquish the right to sue. Meanwhile, winning such a claim can be difficult, with workers having to prove they contracted coronavirus on the job – a high bar during a pandemic. A better case could be made if several employees at a workplace contracted the virus.

“Even though it’s recognized that some groups of workers are at elevated risk of catching a virus, there’s still that reality that they may be catching it outside of work,” says John Ruser, CEO of the Workers Compensation Research Institute, an independent group that analyzes workers compensation issues. “The burden of proof would be pretty heavy for them to show that it was work-related.”

If your co-worker gets COVID-19 and you fear you’ll be infected, can you quit and collect unemployment?
Generally, you can only qualify for unemployment if you lost your job due to COVID-19, you’ve left your job to take care of family member who has been infected, or you’re quarantining on the advice of a health care provider and you’re unable to perform your duties.

In fact, guidance in regards to the CARES act specifically states that quitting a job without cause to get benefits would be deemed fraud. You would have to prove you were possibly exposed to the virus.

If you believe your employer’s response to the possible spread of COVID-19 creates “a serious safety hazard” or if you think your employer is not following federal work safety standards, you can file a complaint with OSHA.

My boss is hiring people to replace those of us who were laid off, and reducing existing employees’ hours by half. Is that legal for a business that received PPP funds?
The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) does not require businesses to rehire the same people that were laid off. It only requires that the loan will be forgiven if at least 75% of the total amount is spent on personnel with the remainder on work-related costs, such as rent, mortgage, or utilities. If you believe your boss has acted improperly or illegally, you could contact your local or state labor agency to file a complaint.
I am concerned my job puts me at high risk for COVID-19. Can I ask my employer to furlough me?
You can’t refuse to come to work based on anxiety over exposure alone. Keep in mind that 31% percent of employers have laid-off workers and 15% have permanently cut the headcount with no intention to rehire, so asking for a furlough could be risky unless your company is already taking that measure. Your employer is not obliged to grant your request – and it could offend or upset your boss so carefully consider whether you want to make that move.

I have Type 1 diabetes, so I’m at risk for the coronavirus. People in the office are sick but are not staying home. Can I ask to work from home?
Type I diabetes can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Working from home may be a reasonable accommodation your employer could be required to consider. In addition, you are at high risk during this pandemic according to the CDC.

Talk to your supervisor about it: Outline how working from home won’t impact productivity. Describe what your setup will be and how it allows you to work well without being in the workplace – and take notes.

Contributing: Paul Davidson, Ledyard King, Charisse Jones, Johnny C. Taylor Jr. and Nicholas Wu.

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