The American workforce has absorbed a severe blow from the COVID-19 pandemic, and its effects likely will resonate beyond 2020. Key trends include a transition to remote work for millions of employees, as well as a steep rise in unemployment. Whether you are currently working, you are taking time off from work for an illness, or you have lost your job, you have important legal protections of which you should be aware.
Employees who still have their jobs may feel concerned about whether the COVID-19 outbreak will curtail their rights in the workplace. This may be true in some narrow situations. For example, an employer has the right to check an employee’s temperature when they come to work, which normally might be forbidden under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, most laws protecting employees apply in full force during this time. An employee still is protected from discrimination and harassment, as well as retaliation for reporting misconduct in the workplace. Employee health information remains confidential under privacy laws. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and other laws still protect wage rights, although the rights of non-exempt employees under these laws usually depend on the hours that an employee works.
In one area, employees have greater protections than before. This involves time off from work for certain reasons, such as an illness of the employee, an illness of a family member, or child care. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) offers up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to employees of covered employers who have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak in specific ways. It also extends the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to provide paid leave for certain employees who need to stay home for child care. Whether you are exercising long-standing rights or new rights specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, employees have many rights in the workplace during COVID-19.
Many state and local governments have issued shelter-in-place orders to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the virus. In areas controlled by these orders, most businesses have been required to shut down and transition their employees to remote work. If you have started working remotely, you may want to take certain steps to ease the process. For example, you may want to set aside part of your home as an office or professional space, and you may benefit from setting specific goals and devising schedules to keep your work on track. You should regularly stay in touch with your supervisors and colleagues so that you can continue coordinating tasks. However, you should not push yourself harder just because you are working from home. This can lead to burnout and exacerbate the anxiety that is widespread during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The unfortunate truth is that many people will develop symptoms of COVID-19, although the medical community suggests that most cases will not be severe. If you contract the virus due to job-related exposure, you may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Claiming workers’ compensation may be challenging for an employee who does not work in health care or public safety, though. They may not be able to prove that the nature of their job put them at an increased risk of contracting the virus, or that the specific exposure from which they got sick occurred on the job. Fortunately, employees may have alternatives to workers’ compensation benefits if they need to miss time for an illness. These include the paid sick leave under the FFCRA discussed above, as well as short-term disability benefits if an employee has this type of policy.
Terminations and layoffs have escalated during the COVID-19 outbreak, which has forced many small businesses to close and larger businesses to downsize their workforces. If you have lost your job, you likely can apply for unemployment benefits. These benefits are available to workers who have been terminated or laid off through no fault of their own. Each state manages its own system of unemployment benefits, which usually last for up to six months. (Some states provide benefits for longer or shorter periods.) Moreover, the federal government is supplementing state unemployment benefits through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and its extension, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. In some cases, people who lost their full-time jobs and have transitioned to part-time work may be eligible for partial unemployment benefits. Unemployment benefits are available through your state agency.