Employers are starting to call their workers back to their jobs as the coronavirus restrictions start easing. Although there are countless requests to reopen businesses, the virus is still out there and even spreading in some areas.
For many workers, the decision to go back to work puts them in a quandary: Should they refuse to go back and risk being fired? Should you quit and lose their unemployment benefits? In such an unparalleled pandemic, what legal protections are out there for these workers?
Being worried about COVID-19 probably won’t provide legal protection for you if you refuse to come back to work. Unless you have legal justification, turning down work will constitute a resignation from your job.
Several federal laws, however, might give you that legal justification:
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act)
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) grants workers the right to refuse to work if they believe workplace conditions could cause them impending severe harm.
Each company must comply with the act’s “General Duty Clause,” which requires employers to guarantee their employees a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” It could be difficult, however, to make a coronavirus-related case using the OSH Act.
If the employer is using social distancing practices and hygiene guidelines at the workplace, it probably won’t be enough. Merely stating that your employer isn’t doing enough is not sufficient to grant you protection. Instead, you will need concrete and specific examples if you file a complaint
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)
For those in the private sector, if you and another worker feel your workplace is unsafe, and you both decide to not go into work for that reason, you may be protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). You would be going on “strike for health and safety reasons.” Since the two of you would be legally engaging in “concerted activity,” your employer would be prohibited from retaliating against you.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)
The FFCRA is intended to prop up the U.S. economy during the pandemic, and it provides some new or expanded worker protections.
If you work in the private sector and your employer has fewer than 500 employees, you can take two weeks of paid sick leave at your regular pay rate if you have COVID-19, have COVID-19 symptoms, or have been quarantined by a doctor. And if you qualify for this paid leave, your employer cannot force you to come to work during that time. The FFCRA also includes two weeks of paid sick leave at two-thirds pay to any workers who can’t work because they are caring for someone who has been quarantined.
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