Coronavirus at Work - Safety, Pay and Unemployment Comp

posted by Christina M. Royer | March 16, 2020 in Employment Law

Q

My job requires I work with other people. I cannot always stay at least six feet away from them. Can I say something to about it my employer?

A

Yes. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) allows employees to engage in “concerted activity for mutual aid or protection,” which means they can ask management to correct unsafe conditions. The NLRA prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who engage in concerted activity.

Q

What if my employer ignores my complaint about working too closely with others?

A

You can file a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Employers have a general obligation to provide employees with a safe workplace. Whether your employer satisfies that obligation will depend on several factors, including whether someone is infected with or was exposed to COVID-19.

Q

Can I refuse to work until my employer corrects the conditions or OSHA investigates to make sure it is safe?

A

You can always refuse to work if you do not want to work. If you do so, though, your absence might not be excused, unless you are in imminent danger.

Q

What is imminent danger?

A

Imminent danger means you reasonably expect immediate death or serious physical harm. When that happens, you and others similarly at risk can refuse to work. The NLRA treats that as a form of concerted activity and prohibits employer retaliation.

We are not suggesting a mass walk-out! These are uncertain times for everyone, including employers. If you have concerns, find ways to raise them in a calm, professional, and collaborative way with your boss. Try to find solutions that work for everyone, including your employer, who is struggling with this as much as you are.

Q

What about travel? Can I refuse to travel?

A

Same answer as working generally. You can refuse to travel but if you do your refusal might not be excused.

Q

If I decide not to work or travel just to be safe, will I still be paid?

A

Generally not. An employer must pay you for hours worked. After you do not work or your employment ends, your employer has no further obligation to pay you unless you have an agreement or some other arrangement for continued pay.

Q

Can I at least receive unemployment compensation if I choose not to work?

A

Probably not. To receive unemployment compensation benefits you must have good cause not to work. Whether you had good cause not to work will depend on the circumstances of your work environment. Unless there is more than a risk of community exposure where you work, we do not recommend that you stay home in reliance on receiving unemployment compensation benefits.

Q

If I am in mandatory quarantine because of a suspicion that I have coronavirus, will I be eligible for benefits?

A

Yes, at least in Ohio. Governor DeWine recently issued an executive order that says employees who are mandatorily quarantined are “unemployed” for purposes of Ohio’s unemployment compensation benefits.

Q

My spouse has to stay home with our kids because coronavirus closed their schools. Is she entitled to any compensation?

A

Possibly. A new law, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act will take effect on or about April 1, 2020 that will require employers to provide paid sick leave and paid emergency FMLA leave to parents who cannot work, or telework, because their children are home from a school or care center that was closed due to Coronavirus. Here are FAQs about this new paid sick time and paid FMLA benefit.

Q

A friend of mine is unemployed because the government ordered restaurants closed. Is she entitled to severance pay or unemployment compensation?

A

No to severance pay, unless her employer agreed to pay it, but yes to unemployment compensation. In addition, in Ohio she will be able to collect unemployment compensation benefits one week early. She should apply for unemployment compensation benefits right away.

Q

Will I receive employee benefits when I am laid off due to a coronavirus?

A

There is no law requiring employers to extend benefits beyond periods of active employment. However, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act gives employers a tax credit if they continue employee health insurance benefits during a coronavirus layoff.

In addition, if you lose health insurance coverage as a result of a layoff and you work for an employer with 20 or more employees, you may be eligible to continue your health insurance at your own cost under a law known as “COBRA.” In that case your employer must send you a COBRA notice that informs you of your right to elect to continue coverage at your cost.

Q

If I miss work because of coronavirus, can my employer charge my time missed to my vacation or paid time off (PTO)?

A

Not if you are eligible for paid sick time or paid FMLA time under the Families First Coronavirus Act. Otherwise, yes, your employer can require you to use employer provided time off while on a coronavirus related layoff.

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