David Barron, a labor and employment attorney with the law firm of Cozen O'Connor, lays out the legal issues for employers that might arise from employees contracting COVID-19 in the workplace.
When it comes to determining whether employers are legally obligated to disclose to employees whether an employee has contracted COVID-19, different states have different rules. At the federal level, the Occupational and Safety Health Administration has ruled that employees have a right to know if they have been exposed to the virus in the workplace.
Privacy remains a concern, however. An employee could be terminated for talking about another employee’s exposure. And a false statement about someone having caught the disease would be considered defamatory. At the same time, employers need to know how to react when an employee is falsely claiming to have COVID-19, perhaps in an attempt to secure a monetary judgment or obtain workmen’s compensation.
There isn’t a lot of precedent to which employers can refer, when devising conditions in the workplace that ensure the safety of employers. However, OSHA has some useful guidelines, albeit generic ones, for accommodating social distancing and requiring face masks. In addition, local restrictions in places of business must be taken into account.
The coronavirus pandemic may lead to permanent changes in how the workplace is set up, as well as policies allowing employees to work from home for all or part of the week. Previously, employers might have resisted such a concession, but “now it’s going to be very hard to ever say no to an employee,” says Barron, “when you’ve established as a country the precedent that it’s reasonable.”
Many issues remain unresolved. Lawsuits, workers’ comp claims and OSHA complaints “are all things that employers are very worried about right now,” Barron says.
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