The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruptions to workplaces across the U.S. Employees may be concerned about issues such as whether they can take time off from work if they get sick, whether they will get paid regularly, and whether laws that shield their rights still apply. In general, existing employment laws remain in effect, and the federal government has strengthened some laws to provide broader protections to employees.
Time Off From Work During COVID-19
Unfortunately, millions of Americans likely will contract COVID-19 at some point during this outbreak. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) offers up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to employees of covered employers who need to miss time from work because they get sick or develop symptoms for which they are receiving medical treatment. Employers covered under this law include businesses with fewer than 500 employees and federal, state, and local government agencies. Employees also can receive this paid sick leave if they are caring for a family member who has contracted COVID-19, or if they are caring for a child who is staying at home because their school has been closed due to the virus. Payments are subject to daily and total limits.
In addition to providing this paid sick leave, the FFCRA expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This federal law typically provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees in certain situations. Under the FFCRA, employees of covered employers can receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave if they are caring for a child who is staying at home because their school has been closed during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the first 10 days of their FMLA leave may be unpaid.
Meanwhile, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and subsequently the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 extended credits for paid sick and family leave through September 30, 2021.
Discrimination and Harassment During COVID-19
The anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak has led to certain irrational and dangerous behaviors. For example, many Asians and Asian-Americans have been targeted for harassment or otherwise mistreated because of their perceived connection to the virus. If an Asian or Asian-American employee has received adverse treatment in the workplace, they may have a claim against their employer. Moreover, an employer cannot fire, harass, or otherwise retaliate against an employee because they raised a concern about workplace safety related to COVID-19, such as a lack of social distancing or proper protective gear. An employee also is protected from adverse treatment based on actions such as voluntarily wearing a mask when it is not required, or asking for additional personal protective equipment.
Many employees have lost their jobs due to the havoc wreaked on the U.S. economy by the virus. An employee generally will not have a wrongful termination claim against an employer if they were fired for this reason. However, an employee may have claims against an employer that are unrelated to their termination. If an employee was subjected to sexual harassment that created a hostile work environment, for example, they can sue the employer after their termination even if the termination was legal. Moreover, an employee may have a wrongful termination claim if they were fired for refusing to comply with an employer policy that violated a government directive related to the virus, such as a shelter-in-place order. Thus, whether or not related to the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are legally protected against discrimination and harassment on the job.
Wages and Salaries During COVID-19
Employees may feel just as much financial stress as their employers during the COVID-19 outbreak. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state wage and hour laws continue to govern areas such as minimum wage and overtime. Non-exempt employees who are not performing work during the outbreak probably are not entitled to receive the wages mandated by the FLSA. However, some employers may continue paying their wages to boost morale in the workplace. Certain non-exempt employees who work a fluctuating work week will be entitled to their regular pay if they perform any work during a week.
Exempt employees mostly consist of various white collar workers, such as people in administrative, professional, and executive roles. Typically, an exempt employee must be paid their full salary for a week in which they perform any work. Your status as an exempt or non-exempt employee will determine your right to continue being paid when your work is affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.