Do I have to return to work despite the COVID-19 outbreak?
In May 2020, Georgia’s stay-at-home order was lifted, which meant that most businesses were allowed to reopen with few or no restrictions. At that point, your employer had significant leeway to terminate your employment if you refused to return to work after being asked to do so.
Under federal law, companies are typically only required to provide handwashing stations and extra sanitizer to those who request it. However, your boss may provide you with gloves, masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) if you ask for it. It may also be possible to wear gloves or masks that are brought from home.
But what if you’re concerned about contracting the virus? What are your options and how might your workers’ compensation be affected?
What happens if you get sick?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 quarantine for a period of 1 to 2 weeks. Furthermore, the CDC recommends that anyone who believes that they have COVID-19 to get tested right away and let their doctors know who they have been in contact with. Doing so can help to prevent others from getting sick or unintentionally spreading it to others.
Ideally, you should stay home from work until you test negative for COVID-19 twice within a period of at least 7 days. At that point, it is unlikely that your body is still shedding the virus. However, if you have any concerns about returning to work after obtaining a negative test, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor and your employer.
What if you’re caring for a loved one?
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows you to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick spouse, parent or child. The law also says that an employer cannot terminate or otherwise discriminate against employees for taking time to care for sick family members.
It’s also important to note that you are entitled to come back to the same position that you held prior to taking a leave of absence.
Can refusing to return to work jeopardize workers’ compensation benefits?
Did you suffer a workplace accident?
At some point during your recovery, your employer might ask you to return to a light-duty position. This could mean that you spend several weeks training employees, sorting mail or answering phones in a call center. You might also be tasked with ordering supplies, sweeping floors or dusting merchandise on store shelves.
However, you may feel that returning after your injury makes you more susceptible to catching the virus. You may want to say no. You should know that refusing to return to work on a light-duty basis could put future lost wage benefits at risk.
If you don’t feel that it’s safe to return to work, it’s a good idea to consult with an attorney.
You might be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to those who have mental or physical limitations. For example, if you experience bouts of fatigue after contracting COVID-19, you might be entitled to work fewer hours or to take more frequent breaks during your shift.
If you are experiencing lingering brain fog after contracting this illness, you might be entitled to ask for more time to complete assignments or extra help doing so. In some cases, you may be allowed to work remotely if there are concerns that you could jeopardize your health or the health of others by working in an office or similar setting.
At-will rules don’t always apply
In the state of Georgia, you are likely considered to be an at-will employee. This means that your boss can fire you for any reason and without any prior notice. In many cases, you could be subject to termination or other disciplinary action if you refuse to return to work during the pandemic.
However, state at-will employment laws may not apply if you are part of a union or have negotiated a custom employment contract. If you belong to a union, management must abide by the language contained in the most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
The terms of such a deal will likely have clauses that directly relate to COVID-19 or indirectly relate to how the company will treat workers during a health crisis. The same is generally true if you have a custom agreement with your employer. It is also worth noting that local employment or health laws might strengthen any protection provided by state or federal law.
Generally speaking, companies are allowed to require their employees to return to work even in the midst of a global pandemic. Although you are not required to work against your will, failing to respond to an offer of suitable employment may come with a variety of consequences.
It may be in your best interest to speak with our experienced attorneys if you have any questions about your rights as an employee or concerns about your safety at work.
Contact Gerber & Holder Law today for your free consultation to learn more.