News Room

Maintaining Workers’ Safety as Businesses Reopen in COVID-19 Era

by Brian S. Kabateck

States are slowly beginning to take steps to reopen their economies, allowing retail stores, parks, hair salons, and restaurants with curbside pickup to reopen, under tightly controlled conditions. Analysts say that businesses and their customers, through their actions, will decide when the economy opens up again. Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom revealed a timeline the state would plan to take to start easing the stay-at-home orders and begin reopening schools, businesses, and public spaces. According to the official California COVID-19 Response page, the six indicators for modifying the current stay-at-home orders include:

● Ability to test, contact trace, isolate and support the exposed
● Ability to protect those at high risk for COVID-19
● Surge capacity for hospital and health systems
● Therapeutic development to meet the demand
● The ability of businesses, schools and childcare facilities to support physical distancing
● Determination of when to reinstitute measures like Stay-At-Home

As California moves onto the different phases, every business should take steps to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and create a safer environment for employees and customers.

● Phase 1: Continue to build out testing, contact tracing, PPE, and hospital surge capacity. Government and private organizations must work to make it more consistently safe for essential workers.

● Phase 2: Lower-risk businesses and public spaces can gradually begin reopening such as retail with curbside pickup, manufacturing, and offices with modifications to allow for social distancing. During this phase, schools and child care facilities may also reopen. A wage replacement would be implemented so workers can stay at home when sick.

● Phase 3: This stage will see the reopening of higher-risk businesses such as nail and hair salons, gyms, movie theaters, and sports without live audiences, as well as in-person religious services, including weddings.

● Phase 4: This will be the end of the state’s stay-at-home order. The last phase will see the reopening of the highest risk workplaces such as concerts, conventions, and sports with a live crowd.

What can employees expect to have changed when they return to work? Here are some of the most common questions and answers:

Q: What are a company’s legal obligations to provide a safe and healthy workplace?

A: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, under federal law, you are entitled to a safe workplace. Your employer must provide a workplace free of known health and safety hazards. If you have concerns, you have the right to speak up about them without fear of retaliation. Guidance for preparing workplaces from COVID-19 was released, outlining the following steps businesses need to take, including:

● Developing an infectious diseases preparedness and response plan
● Preparing to implement basic infection prevention measures
● Developing policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate
● Developing, implementing and communicating about workplace flexibility and protections
● Implementing workplace controls

Q: Can businesses prohibit at-risk populations like the elderly or workers with pre-existing medical conditions from coming to work?

A: According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older adults and people of any age who have pre-existing medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

● Support and encourage options to telework, if available. This will eliminate the need for employees living in higher transmission areas to travel to workplaces in lower transmission areas.
● Consider offering vulnerable workers duties that minimize their contact with customers and other employees
● Ensure that any other businesses and employers sharing the same workspace also follow this guidance.

Q: Can employers tell employees with symptoms to stay home?

A: If employees start showing symptoms such as a cough, fever, shortness of breath, or other cold or flu-like symptoms, employers have the right to ask them to stay at home and not risk exposing other people in the workplace. The company may ask you to work remotely if you are in self-quarantine, and the unfortunate circumstance that the employee becomes ill, they may be entitled to utilize accrued, unused vacation/paid time off (PTO) and paid sick leave during their time off.

Q: What policies are businesses implementing so employees protect themselves when they go back to work?

A: The CDC recommends businesses to implement a plan that is specific to their workplace and talk with their employees about planned changes. Those seeking to reopen as soon as possible should take the following steps:

● Conduct daily health checks
● Conduct a hazard assessment of the workplace
● Encourage employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace.
● Implement policies and practices for social distancing.

Q: Can businesses force an employee to stay home if they show symptoms?

A: Employees who appear to have symptoms at work or who become sick during the day should immediately be separated from other employees, customers, and visitors, and sent home. Employers should have a safety protocol in place in case the employee may need to be transported home or to a healthcare provider.
As an employee, you have the right to be treated fairly by your employer. It is illegal for employers to fire workers for discriminatory reasons or in retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim. It is also illegal to fire them for disclosing a violation of law to the authorities. Whether you have been subjected to discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment or retaliation, Kabateck LLP understands your rights as a worker.
If you believe that your employer may have violated the law, it’s important to seek advice from one of our employment law professionals.