As many businesses and employers begin to open back up, in Florida and across the country, many people are wondering what their rights are in regard to working during the coronavirus. In this article, we have put together 11 questions and answers to cover some of the most common concerns when it comes to coronavirus in the workplace.
1. Can I refuse to go back to work if I feel unsafe?
No, in the state of Florida you cannot refuse to go back to work because of the coronavirus, unless of course you currently have COVID-19. Your doctor is the only person who can legally place you on, or keep you on, “no-work status”. Therefore, if your doctor (known by Florida law as your “treating physician”) releases you to return to your job, then you are required by law to make a good-faith effort to do so. If you refuse to return to work, not only can you legally lose your job, but you will also forfeit your eligibility for lost wage benefit payments.
2. What are my options if I feel my employer is not following the guidelines set by the CDC?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that all employers and businesses create a workplace that is safe for their employees and “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm”. In order to meet this standard during COVID, OSHA is recommending businesses follow CDC guidelines. This includes encouraging employees to social distance among themselves and with customers, taking temperatures regularly, cleaning and disinfecting high-contact surfaces, and providing employees with face masks, hand sanitizers, and barriers if necessary.
However, CDC guidelines are just a recommendation. Unless the employer is in the healthcare industry, there is no state or federal law that requires employers to follow these guidelines.
If you feel you are unsafe at work, you have several options. You can speak to your employer about the unsafe conditions, especially if the issue is being caused by other employees, in an effort to get the hazard fixed. If possible, you can also speak to upper management or the owner of the business to make them aware of the situation. And finally, if you believe your employer is unnecessarily endangering employees or customers, you can file a complaint with OSHA at: osha.gov/workers/file_complaint.html
3. What happens if I return to work and find we are not offered handwashing breaks and few coworkers are social distancing?
As we mentioned above, both the CDC and other government agencies are strongly recommending that employers encourage social distancing among employees and customers, and that handwashing frequency is increased. If you find that your job is not offering enough handwashing breaks and that social distancing is not really being practiced, then you should speak to your employer.
Let them know that you feel your health and others’ health is at risk. Tell them that you would like more opportunities to wash your hands and more enforcement of social distancing guidelines. Social distancing and handwashing has been incredibly important in the fight against coronavirus infections, and it continues to be important.
Most employers want to limit their employees’, customers’, and business’ exposure to a virus as dangerous and deadly as coronavirus. Not only does an outbreak of COVID-19 expose the employer to profit loss but it also exposes them to negative press.
If you feel that handwashing and social distancing is not being enforced enough, speak up, chances are your employer wants to know about it. And as we mentioned above, you can file a complaint with OSHA if you believe the situation is severe at: osha.gov/workers/file_complaint.html
4. If I feel safe at work, but not commuting, what are my options?
If you feel that your workplace is safe and has taken reasonable measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but you do not feel safe commuting to work on public transportation, you have a few options.
For example, you can:
- use a rideshare service,
- bike or use a scooter share service,
- ask to change your start time,
- or ask about working from home.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, carpooling could be a safe alternative to commuting on public transportation. Carpooling is likely the most feasible option for people who live in areas where other option, like biking and scooters are not possible. If you have a co-worker that you can share a ride with, this may be your best option. In place of paying for a monthly transit pass, offer the money to the carpool driver for gas. And of course, never carpool while you or the driver is sick or showing symptoms.
Rideshare services, like Uber and Lyft, are also a great option for occasional times when you need to get to work but don’t feel safe. Of course, using a rideshare service regularly could get expensive, but when you are in a pinch they are super convenient. Click here to view the most recent safety guidelines for Lyft and Uber.
If you live close enough to work, or in a metropolis area, riding your bike or using a scooter share service may be a good option for the time being. Not only does a bike or scooter allow you to commute alone—which is the safest way to commute during COVID—it also allows you to be in the open air where exposure to coronavirus is reduced.
If no other option is available to you besides using public transportation to get to work, then it’s time to speak to your employer about either changing your start time or about working from home temporarily. Asking your employer to change your start time to line up with a less busy commuting hour could dramatically reduce your safety concerns and exposure to coronavirus. If that is not possible, speak to your employer about working from home while the coronavirus threat is so high. You may be surprised, many employers are learning that having employees work from home benefits their business.
No matter how you commute to work, it is important that you follow measures to keep yourself and others safe.
- Wear a mask.
- Limit the number of passengers in a vehicle.
- Wash your hands before and after your commute.
- Use hand sanitizer after touching public surfaces.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- During travel, try to keep at least 6 feet from others.
- Keep napkins or tissues with you to open doors, latches, etc.
- And if you feel sick or have symptoms, do not commute.
5. If I complain about my company’s safety measures, and subsequently get fired, what can I do?
It is against federal law for an employer to fire, demote, reduce or withhold pay, or retaliate in any way against someone who reports unsafe and unhealthy working conditions to OSHA during the coronavirus pandemic. According to OSHA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt, “Employees have the right to safe and healthy workplaces. Any worker who believes that their employer is retaliating against them for reporting unsafe working conditions should contact OSHA immediately.”
Workers and employees in the United States have the right to file what is known as a “whistleblower complaint” if they believe they have been retaliated against for reporting unsafe conditions. You can file a whistleblower complaint online or by calling 1-800-321-OSHA.
6. Am I eligible for workers’ compensation if I become infected with the Coronavirus?
According to Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation, a Florida worker can only get workers compensation benefits if they contract coronavirus while at work and if their job exposes them to the general public where there is evidence of community-spread. Therefore, first responders, healthcare workers, and others that contract COVID-19 due to work-related exposure would be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits under Florida Law Section 440.151. However, keep in mind that you can only get workers comp benefits if the virus was contracted at work or during work-related activities. If you contract coronavirus outside of work, you do not qualify for workers comp benefits.
7. If I get Covid-19 because of my job, am I eligible for workers’ compensation?
Yes, if you get coronavirus directly because of work or during work-related activities, you qualify for workers compensation benefits. In most work-related illness claims, the worker has to prove that they contracted the illness at work. But in a recent memo titled “CFO Directive 2020-05“, the burden of proof was placed back on the state if they wish to deny a claim. The worker still has to prove that they do in-fact have COVID-19 and that they have damages, like lost wages or medical bills.
8. Does my employer have a right to prevent me coming back to work, i.e. if I am of an older age group or more susceptible to Covid-19?
If you currently have coronavirus or are still within the infection period, your employer can prevent you from coming to work. The CDC guidelines say that employees who become ill with symptoms of COVID-19 should leave the workplace until it is safe for them to come back.
However, if you are not sick with the coronavirus, your employer cannot prevent you from coming to work because of your age or a pre-existing illness that makes you more susceptible. These conditions are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). It is illegal in the United States to discriminate against someone in the workplace because of a disability or their age.
9. If I have symptoms similar to Covid-19, but have not been tested, and then go back to work and find I am positive after infecting other colleagues, can I be sued?
First, you should not go to work if you have symptoms similar to COVID-19. But if you do find out later you have coronavirus, it is unlikely that you can be sued for giving it to another person. Unlike other situations in which a person’s negligence causes harm to another person and opens them up to a lawsuit, COVID-19 contraction is not likely to be one of them. Even if you did give another person coronavirus, it is unlikely they would be able to prove to a legal standard that you gave them the virus. Of course, there is currently no precedent for coronavirus civil lawsuits so only time will tell how this situation will play out.
10. Can I refuse to go home if my employer suspects I have Covid-19?
11. Can my employer force me to get a Covid-19 vaccine, should it become available?
Normally, an employer cannot force an employee to get a vaccine. However, given the current pandemic, this may change given how unprecedented the current situation is in the modern world. As the COVID-19 pandemic changes, we will have to wait and see how the government responds on this issue when and if a vaccine becomes available.