Can I Sue My Employer for Mistreatment Due to Coronavirus?

March 26, 2020

COVID-19 or coronavirus has many companies entering uncharted territory. No one has experienced a pandemic of this nature during their lifetime. Business owners are torn. They’re trying to keep to business as usual for their customers, ensuring employees have a paycheck, and following state and federal government cautions on shutting do for at least two weeks to stop the spread. Workplace discrimination laws don’t touch on employment laws during a pandemic.

It’s just as hard for the worker. You’ve never been in this situation. You don’t want to lose your income, but you can’t risk your own and your loved ones’ safety. What are your rights when it comes to how you’re treated during this pandemic? What are your employer’s responsibilities? Can you sue your employer for mistreatment related to COVID-19?

H.R. 6201, Families First Coronavirus Response Act created a few rules that may help workers in specific situations. We’ll take a closer look at what the laws say and where there is still some uncertainty that may not offer the protection you hope.

What Situations Does the Families First Coronavirus Response Act Help With?

Before you look into a discrimination complaint against your employer, some of the new rules from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act may help you if you’re laid-off or put on leave for a month or two.

Pregnant women or new moms who meet the income requirements and are laid off or lose jobs as employers go to skeleton crews or shut down have some protection from hardship. If you’re worried that the loss of income is going to cause your family to go hungry, there’s help available. To help these moms, the government earmarked an extra $500 million for The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for WIC to ensure these low-income women and their young children have access to food. Additional funding for SNAP benefits is also going to help families.

Emergency Paid Leave provides workers who must take time off while they self-quarantine with two-thirds of their average monthly pay (up to $4,000) per month. You have up to six months to file and benefits can be paid retroactively. Applications are not filled out with your employer or a Social Security Administration office. You must fill it out over the phone, by mail, or online.

Unemployment Insurance is available for those who are laid off temporarily. States that see unemployment claims increase by 10% get part of the $500 million government grant to help with the spike. Your employer should not try to prevent you from filing for unemployment insurance if you are put on leave until the pandemic ends. You should file as quickly as you can to get into the system and get some money coming in.

If you’re diagnosed with coronavirus, the Department of Labor has $5 million available to provide workers with 14 days of paid sick leave. If you need to take time off because you’re positive for coronavirus, take that time off. Your employer shouldn’t stop you. If they do, talk to an attorney who specializes in employment law.

Can Your Employer Interfere in Your Travel Plans or Personal Time?

You had vacation time scheduled or were planning to take a cruise. Can your employer force you to cancel your plans? If your boss revokes your personal time request and says you must come to work, can you sue?

First, you have to look at the U.S. restrictions on travel. Right now, people are being asked not to travel. Some travel is banned. You may not be able to take the trip you’d planned. The U.S. State Department has asked people to not travel to an international destination. Many airlines are ceasing international travel for now. Cruises have also suspended some operations.

Second, vacation time isn’t something U.S. labor laws protect. The only protection you may have will fall in your employment contract or union contract. If your boss is telling you you cannot travel to a specific area or you’ll lose your job, that’s not acceptable. It can be a recommendation, but you cannot be forced to comply. If you do have to cancel a trip because your employer needs you to work, you can ask to have cancellation fees reimbursed if the airline, cruise, train, or hotel won’t reimburse them. Your employer may not agree, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Are You Still Required to Travel for Business if You’re Uncomfortable Doing So?

Your employer wants you to take a planned business trip, but you don’t want to travel right now. You’re being forced to go, and it makes you uncomfortable. You’re threatened with demotion or a lay-off if you do not travel. Is that legal? This is one area where laws are a little hazier. Your employer could say you’re refusing to complete a job duty. However, with current travel restrictions, that business trip could be in a city or state where there is an order to shut down non-essential businesses. That can protect you. An attorney who specializes in employment law can help you file a complaint.

You should talk to your employer about alternatives to the business trip. You could set up a virtual meeting instead. With services like Google Hangouts or Skype, people could participate in a virtual conference using computers and video cameras. You still see each other. You still ask and answer questions. The difference is that you’re all safe in your home offices and preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Can Your Boss Force You to Come to the Office? Can You Be Forced to Work From Home?

If you’re not comfortable going to work, your boss can force you to if the work is in an essential industry providing you’ve been given the equipment and instruction to stay safe. For example, a maintenance worker who has been trained and equipped with the proper apparel and gloves can still work safely. If you’re a bank teller who sees dozens of customers in face-to-face situations, you have a valid complaint.

For companies that can have workers go home and work from home offices, your boss can ask all workers to work from home. If you’re being singled out while other workers continue coming to the office, that’s different and illegal. For example, an employer who demands all workers 60 or older work from home but younger workers come to the office, that can be construed as age discrimination.

Does My Employer Have to Tell Your Co-Workers That You’re Sick?

You’ve tested positive for coronavirus. You should be under a two-week quarantine now. You don’t want your boss telling all co-workers and feel it’s an attack on your rights that your boss is doing so. While there are HIPAA laws in place to protect your privacy, your co-workers deserve to know they’ve been in contact with someone who is sick. Your boss cannot name you specifically, but it may be easy for them to figure out if you’re the only one missing from the office.

You May Not Be Able to Work

Some states are implementing rules requiring workers to stay at home. California has one of the strictest remain-in-place orders in the nation. Governor Newsom ordered Californians to stay at home and not leave the house except for essential things like shopping for groceries and prescriptions, essential medical care, and commutes for jobs that are defined as essential.

Essential jobs include daycare workers, gas stations, grocery stores, banks, contractors (electricians and plumbers), healthcare, transportation, hardware stores, veterinarians, food banks, shelters, outdoor farmers markets, and social services. These businesses are required to make sure social distancing and facilities for frequent hand washing are available. If your employer isn’t allowing you extra time to thoroughly wash your hands and allowing you to keep at least six feet between you and clients or work associates, that could be a problem.

If you’re in a non-essential business, such as a museum or mall, you are not supposed to go to work. Your boss could be in trouble for forcing you to work anyway. You may have heard of one video game retailer that told  its workers they are essential and must report to work even though that contradicts the government order. The company has since changed it’s policy, which is good, but some companies may still go against advice. If you’re experiencing something like this, you should see an attorney.

Shegerian Conniff specializes in employment laws. If you have questions regarding discrimination or harassment related to coronavirus, give us a call. Consultations are confidential and do not cost anything.