Q&A: Know your worker rights in the pandemic

To help workers understand their rights in the new working world created by the COVID-19 pandemic, here are some common questions and answers. 

Employees with concerns about their workplace can contact the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration on a new hotline at (855) 723-3219. Guidelines for workplace safety rules can be found at www.michigan.gov/leo/.

Q: Can I be fired for refusing to come to work if I've tested positive for COVID-19?

A. Employees cannot be told to work if they tested positive for COVID-19 and were instructed to quarantine by a medical provider, according to the Michigan attorney general's office: While an employee is in quarantine an employer should not require an employee to work outside of the employee’s home or work against physician’s orders.

Q: Do employers have any obligation to notify their workforce of other employees being tested for COVID-19?

A. No, because of health privacy laws, says employment attorney Deborah Gordon. Federal law protects people's health information from being shared with others.

Q: What do you do if your employer is not taking the proper precautions to protect employees from COVID-19 exposure?

A. In Michigan, employers must provide employees with “a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to the employee,” according to the Michigan attorney general's office. During the pandemic, that includes employers providing personal protective equipment.

Q: What should an employee do if they have evidence their employer is violating the governor's executive orders on workplace safety?

A. "Their logical next step would be to go to their employer, preferably in writing so they have a record," Gordon says. "Tell them it's being violated. If the employer does nothing, unfortunately the pressure is on the employee. 

"I would either call the police or I'd go to OSHA, and I'd tell the employer. If the employee still does nothing, and you're not fired, your option is to quit and go get unemployment because your employer was violating the law.

"If your employer fires you for threatening to go to the police or threatening to go to OSHA, then you have a lawsuit."

Q: Can an employer require an employee to stay out of work or make them leave work because they are too sick to work? Can an employer require an employee to stay out of work because the employee or one of their family members may have been exposed to COVID-19?

A. An employer can tell an employee not to come to work, according to the attorney general's office. An employer can also require an employee to leave work if they are sick. If employees are asked to stay home, they may apply for unemployment. Employees may also be eligible for paid sick leave under a new federal law – Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Q: Can an employee stay home under the Family Medical Leave Act to avoid getting the virus?

A. The law protects eligible employees who are incapacitated by a serious health condition, or who are needed to care for covered family members who are incapacitated by a serious health condition. Leave taken by an employee for the purpose of avoiding exposure is not protected. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, qualified individuals could be entitled to unscheduled leave, unpaid leave, or modifications to the employer sick leave policies. 

Further, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission says: The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodation" to qualified individuals, unless doing so would cause "undue hardship." Employees who may be at high risk of becoming sick from the virus may be able to seek such accommodations under the ADA.

Q: Do I have access to paid leave benefits?

A:  The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires certain employers to provide employees with less than 500 workers with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. 

Q: If I am at high risk of getting sick with the virus and my job can be done remotely, what rights do I have?

A: The ADA requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodation" to workers with disabilities. In Gordon's view, being immune-compromised would count as a disability. You would have to request the accommodation to work remotely, and present a doctor's note to your employer. You may also be eligible for unpaid family and medical leave. 


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