Working during the coronavirus pandemic can be scary. Many people have questions about their rights in the workplace, including whether they can wear PPE, remain home when they feel unsafe, and whether their employers can ask about their medical conditions or take their temperatures. Guidance has been issued by several federal agencies about the rights of workers and the obligations of employers during the pandemic. Here’s some information from the attorneys at Swartz Swidler about what you should know about your rights at work during this time.
The right to wear PPE
Employers are required to provide their employees with personal protective equipment to keep them safe in the workplace. The specific types of PPE you are entitled to receive will depend on the type of work that you perform.
If you work in a high-risk industry in which you are required to work within six feet of others with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases, you are entitled to receive and wear face and eye protection, gloves, and N-95 masks or their equivalents. This would include health care workers and mortuary staff, for example.
Most workers have lower-risk jobs. If your job places you at a lower risk for contracting COVID-19, your PPE requirements are likely lower. If your work includes interacting face-to-face with the public or with coworkers, you should be entitled to a face mask or covering. If you have to handle things that have been touched by others, you should wear gloves.
Employers are also obligated to implement measures to prevent infection. This includes the promotion of respiratory etiquette and handwashing together with disinfection procedures. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration advises employers to implement procedures for the identification and isolation of sick employees.
What can people do if their employers refuse to provide PPE and their workplaces are unsafe?
Employers are required to provide safe workplaces that are free from dangerous conditions that could seriously harm workers or result in their deaths under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. If you feel that your workplace is unsafe, you should tell your supervisor about your concerns. If your company does not do anything to correct the problem, you can file a complaint with OSHA. Employers cannot retaliate against you for filing an OSHA complaint.
Guidelines about social distancing, disinfection, and PPE have been issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and OSHA. You can review these guidelines to help to determine whether your employer is taking the necessary steps to maintain the safety of your workplace.
Can workers refuse to report to work if their workplaces are unsafe?
To refuse to report to work because of safety concerns, you must meet all of the following conditions:
- You asked your employer to correct the hazardous condition, but your employer refused.
- The danger posed by the condition is imminent.
- A reasonable person in your shoes would also believe the conditions in your workplace present a danger of serious injury or death.
- There isn’t enough time to address the urgent danger through regular means of enforcement.
For example, if you live and work in an area in which there is a high level of community spread, and your employer refuses to provide you with PPE, you might have valid grounds to refuse to report to work.
Can you be fired or disciplined for complaining about not receiving PPE?
Employers are prohibited from retaliating against workers for complaining about not receiving PPE or workplace safety. They also cannot retaliate against workers who file OSHA complaints or cooperate with investigations. If your employer unlawfully retaliates against you, you have the right to file a lawsuit.
Can you file a lawsuit against your employer if you contract COVID-19 at your job?
Most workers cannot sue their employers when they become sickened at work or are injured on the job. Instead, you can file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. When you file a workers’ compensation claim, you will not have to prove that your employer was negligent.
Can your employer take your temperature when you arrive at work?
Employers are allowed to take their employees’ temperatures before allowing them to work each day. However, they must keep their employees’ temperature readings confidential. It is important to note that many COVID-19 carriers do not suffer fevers or other symptoms. This makes it important for employers to strictly follow health and safety guidelines to protect their employees, including implementing cleaning and disinfection protocols, allowing flexible work schedules if possible, and encouraging employees to regularly wash their hands and follow respiratory etiquette measures.
Can your employer force you to tell whether you have had COVID-19 symptoms or have tested positive?
When you call in sick to work, you will likely be asked if you have experienced any of the common symptoms of COVID-19 and whether you have received a positive COVID-19 test. Your employer is allowed to ask these types of questions and to refuse to allow you to work if you do not answer. However, any medical information you provide to your employer must be kept confidential by your employer.
Can your employer tell others that you have COVID-19 symptoms or have tested positive?
Your employer cannot tell others at your work that you have tested positive for COVID-19 or have experienced symptoms. However, your employer can inform others in your workplace that an individual has tested positive or has symptoms.
Can your employer require you to provide a doctor’s note before you return to work?
Your employer is allowed to ask you to get a doctor’s note before you can return to work. However, the CDC discourages this practice because of the current demands on the health care system.
Can your employer ask you whether your family members have symptoms or COVID-19?
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act or GINA prohibits employers from asking workers for their family members’ medical information. However, your employer can ask you whether you have been in contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or has symptoms.
Contact an employment law attorney
If you believe that your employer has violated your rights during the pandemic, you may want to consult with an experienced employment law attorney. Contact Swartz Swidler to schedule a consultation by calling (856) 685-7420.