Ask an attorney – COVID concerns at work

Q. Can I refuse to go to work because of COVID-19? A. Most employees are “at will” employees, which means that you could be fired for not showing up. This is true whether you are considered an essential worker or not. As always, the best approach is to explain your reasoning and try to work with your employer towards a solution. If you truly feel uncomfortable going to work, you should explore sick or vacation time, or any other paid or unpaid time off.

Q. Does my employer have to give me paid sick leave? A. A federal law passed on March 18, 2020, requires employers to give workers paid sick leave through the end of the year. This applies to employers with fewer than 500 employees, and the leave must be necessitated by: 1. A government quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19; 2. A health care provider order to self-quarantine due to COVID-19; 3. Symptoms similar to COVID-19; 4. A need to care for someone who is affected by #1 or #2; 5. A need to care for a child. However, if your employer has fewer than 50 employees, it may qualify for an exemption from #5.

Q. If I want to claim sick leave under the Emergency Leave Act, do I need a doctor’s note? A. The law does not address this issue. However, if you are concerned, it is helpful to have your symptoms documented in a medical record to show that you sought a diagnosis.

Q. Can an employer require an employee to use paid time off if they are home and not working? A. Yes.

Q. Does my employer have to allow me to work from home if I want to? A. No.

Q. What do I do if my workplace feels unsafe? A. As a general proposition, employers are required to provide a safe working environment. The CDC has provided guidelines for employers relating to COVID-19. If an employee is concerned, he or she should raise those concerns to management. If management fails to address those concerns, workplace safety is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which will investigate if you make a complaint. The law prohibits employers from punishing an employee for raising such a concern.

If the conditions are such that the employee feels that nothing has been done to make it safer, the employee can file an unemployment insurance claim. Generally, you cannot seek unemployment insurance when you terminate employment voluntarily. However, if you can show that you did so for good cause related to the safety concerns, you may be eligible for unemployment.

Q. What does my employer have to do if someone at my job tests positive for COVID-19? A. Health information privacy laws prohibit the employer from disclosing the name of the person diagnosed, but office workers should be informed of the situation to increase awareness, self-monitoring of symptoms and extra care in disinfecting surfaces. If an employer does not do so, it could expose itself to liability.

Q. What if I refuse to go to work because I believe that I am more at risk because of my age or health condition? A. This is a tricky situation with no clear answer. If you have a condition that could put you in serious danger, you should, of course, stay home. As discussed above, OSHA regulates workplace safety and allows you to refuse to work and file a complaint if you believe you are in danger. It is unclear whether or not this includes a co-worker diagnosed with COVID. It is possible that you may still lose your job in this circumstance.

Q. I got a new job, but I couldn’t start because of COVID-19. Can I get unemployment benefits? A. Maybe. There is a program called pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA). You are required to apply for regular unemployment benefits first and get denied before applying for PUA. You may qualify for PUA if you were scheduled to start work but it was canceled because of COVID-19, or if you are unable to reach your job because of COVID-19.

Q. Can creditors garnish my unemployment benefits? A. No. Public and government benefits are protected from creditors.

You likely have additional questions after you have finished reading this article. The best approach is to do your research, talk to your doctor and in some circumstances, call a lawyer before taking any action. Things are constantly evolving, with new legislation being proposed on what seems like a daily basis. Be safe out there and stay informed.

Sarah Delano Pavlik is an attorney with Delano Law Offices in Springfield. This content is for informational purposes only. Consult an attorney regarding specific legal questions. Send your legal questions to tpavl[email protected] for possible inclusion in a future column.

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