With coronavirus quarantines beginning to wind down across the country, many businesses are eager to reopen and begin attracting customers. However, employees have been generally less enthusiastic about returning to work, fearing they will be exposed to the coronavirus while on the job. Considering this, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidance to employers on how to handle this thorny issue.
The concerns that employees have about returning to work are many, as seen by a massive uptick of OSHA complaints related to COVID-19. Aside from fears of contracting the virus themselves, they also fear bringing it home and infecting their families. Employees have also expressed concerns about a lack of availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as well as the inability to socially distance in their workplaces. Perhaps most alarmingly, some employees have reported retaliation by their employers for bringing up concerns about the coronavirus, or for refusing to work during the crisis.
In response to these concerns, OSHA has issued guidance pointing to several regulations, including the General Duty Clause found in Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires the provision of PPE in situations where the risk of harm from airborne hazards is high. They also point to regulations requiring protections against the spread of blood-borne pathogens, noting that the coronavirus can readily spread through the bodily fluids of the infected. OSHA emphasizes the importance of healthcare workers being given the resources they need to protect themselves and their patients from infection.
As to the issue of employer retaliation, OSHA notes that all employees are protected by the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits retaliation due to complaints about safety or health conditions in a work environment. It also makes it illegal for an employer to force an employee to work when there is substantial safety or health risks for doing so. Employers should treat all refusals to work related to the coronavirus as protected by the NLRA until further notice.
If you have gotten into a legal dispute with your employer, it is important that you seek the guidance of an experienced New York employment lawyer who can protect your legal rights and advocate on your behalf. Steven Mitchell Sack, the Employee’s Lawyer, is a New York employment lawyer with more than 39 years’ experience handling the many aspects of employment law. To schedule an appointment with New York City employment lawyer Steven Mitchell Sack, call (917) 371-8000.