Everyone around the world, and now in the United States, is struggling to understand what we each can do to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and protect our loved ones, especially those at higher risk of having life-threatening consequences if they contract the virus. This blog addresses legal rights employees can assert if they feel their employer is not adequately protecting them from exposure to this virus.
All Employers have a Legal Obligation to Provide a Safe Workplace
Under common law negligence standards all employers have an obligation to meet the applicable standards of care in providing employees a safe work environment. If they fail to meet this standard, this can give rise to claims of negligence, and if this failure is extreme, this can establish “gross negligence” or even meet intentional tort standards (often called assault, battery or intentional infliction of emotional distress), which can give rise to substantial remedies.
Furthermore, federal, state and local statutes or regulations provide a host of additional rights relating to workplace safety, which, when violated, can also be asserted. At the federal level there is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency of the Department of Labor, which has its own protective regulatory framework, and avenues for complaints to be pursued.
These Protections Apply Directly to the Dangers Posed by the COVID-19 Pandemic
The current COVID-19 pandemic poses the greatest global health threat since the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, and while a great deal is now known about the novel coronavirus, there are so many additional questions which directly implicate workplace safety rights.
We now know that this virus is both extremely serious when contracted (the general consensus appears to consider it to be 10-20 times more powerful that the seasonal flu), with much more serious consequences for older individuals or individuals at any age with a compromised immune system. COVID-19 is also highly transmissible. There have been many “recommendations” from the CDC and other sources, which all generally relate to “social isolation” practices which should be followed to lessen the current risks of the community spread of the virus.
These recommendations, and the general common law and statutory protections outlined above, establish that any employer who is ignoring these recommendations is likely engaging in grossly negligent behavior which also likely violates the statutory and regulatory protections under federal, state and local laws as well.
For instance, if your employer is not permitting you to work remotely, or requiring continued travel obligations which dramatically increase your likelihood of contracting the virus, or is otherwise not following the measures prescribed by the CDC (i.e. no gatherings of more than ten individuals, six feet distance maintained at all times between employees), frequent handwashing and hand sanitizing, these create clear legal violations. Moreover, if you have a need to provide care to a family member affected by the virus, federal and state leave laws give you the right to provide this care (and be provided leave to do it), without any risk of losing your job. If you face issues in any of these areas, the team at Schaefer Halleen will be available for a detailed initial telephone screening. You can contact us today for a confidential consultation.