20 Mar 2020

Employment in the Time of Coronavirus

As coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the globe, businesses in the US face a plethora of practical and legal employment challenges as they adapt daily practices to mitigate the spread of this virus among their workforce. More and more, employers across Houston and Harris County are having their employees work from home to reduce exposure. However, the ability to work remotely is not a luxury afforded to the vast majority of workers. As top-rated Houston employment lawyers, we want our clients to be able to navigate potential issues as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread.

Taking Employees’ Temperatures and Ordering them to be Tested

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers are obligated to protect their workers from harm. OSHA has a general duty clause requiring that employers maintain a safe workplace free of hazards likely to cause harm, and the coronavirus would likely fall under this clause.

Any employer keeping their doors open should take reasonable precautions to reduce any threat of infection: washing hands for 20 seconds or more, making sanitizers easily accessible, and regularly disinfecting surfaces people might touch. This does not, however, mean that they should be aiming a thermometer at anyone entering the building and dragging off anyone with an elevated temperature.

When an employer sees that someone is sick, they are able to send that person home, but any manager exercising this power should be careful not to make a diagnosis and should be consistent in who they release.

Refusing Requests to Do Something that Might Cause Exposure

As with any issue, there will always be people who dismiss the coronavirus or discount symptoms, and there will always be workers paralyzed with fear. For example, an employer may ask someone to meet a client in Seattle, and the employee may refuse, fearing that they’d be exposed to the virus. While this seems like a straightforward response, that employee could still be fired because Texas is an employment-at-will state. However, OSHA rules still allow employees to raise reasonable concern over health and safety without retaliation from their employer.

As the country goes under emergency orders and the pandemic spreads, the definition of reasonable will shift. There is no on-size-fits-all answer for this, and we can help you navigate such situations in these trying times.

Payment Under Furlough

Payment depends on the employee’s status. With the Fair Labor Standards Act, salaried employees are entitled to full compensation even when only working a minimal amount. This is like the flip side of not being paid overtime when you work over 40 hours. When you work any portion of the week, whether working remotely or simply checking emails, it is still work.

This is different for hourly workers, who are paid based on how much time they put in. If they are laid off, they should be covered under unemployment insurance, which we are happy to help you navigate. Federal emergency rules dictate that this coverage is also being activated for workers who don’t have paid medical leave and need to isolate or quarantine themselves because of exposure to or testing positive for coronavirus.

In these trying times, when individual and community safety are at risk, you need to know that you have rights as an employee. If you have any questions about overtime, wrongful termination, unemployment, or any other issue, contact Houston’s top-rated employment lawyers today.