Coronavirus: Employee Considerations

Coronavirus - September 14, 2021
Father working at table in home kitchen with daughter on his lap playing a game

Understanding your employee rights during coronavirus

Employees everywhere have seen their job status thrown into uncertainty over the coronavirus outbreak. Store, restaurant, and office closings have left many unable to work, and those fortunate enough to be able to work remotely must juggle their job responsibilities and childcare duties due to closed schools and daycare facilities. Questions about being able to work and pay the bills without the risk of getting sick are a cause of tremendous anxiety for many, so we’re answering some of the questions you might have about your rights and options as an employee during this crisis.

Frequently asked employee questions amid coronavirus crisis:

  1. Work from home
  2. Work travel
  3. Sick leave
  4. Family Medical Leave
  5. Unsafe work environment
  6. Personal information safety

Work from home

Q: Do I have the right to work from home?

A: Except for cases covered by ADA, employers generally aren’t required to allow telecommuting. The exception to this might be in the event of a local or national quarantine wherein people are restricted to their homes for all but essential travel. Governments at all levels have urged employers to allow workers to stay home where possible to contain the spread of the virus. It is important to be familiar with executive orders that might impact your state.

Work travel

Q: I have a work trip planned for next week. Can my employer fire me for refusing to travel?

A: The answer is complicated. While your boss may be able to fire you for refusing to travel as part of your work duties, you may be protected under the National Labor Relations Act’s provision for protected concerted activity if you’re speaking out on behalf of a group of employees similarly affected. Ideally, you and your employer would be able to come to an understanding of the risks involved and the efficacy of virtual meetings that would allow you to avoid the trip. There may be travel restrictions that apply. You have a right to seek advice from an attorney.

Sick leave

Q: My employer does not provide paid sick leave. I do not feel safe traveling to work. Can they force me to come to work?

A: Broadly speaking, employers do still have the ability to make their employees come into the workplace. Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an employee can only refuse to come to work if they feel they are in immediate danger in doing so. Immediate danger usually refers to an imminent threat of death or physical harm simply by going to work and performing your job as assigned. So, for non-healthcare workers, it’s unclear that any such provisions would cover the possibility of coronavirus exposure. Employers are also required to accommodate immunocompromised workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, so if you are at a particular risk for catching the disease, the company has to make reasonable accommodations.

That said, employers have been urged to adopt remote work options if possible, and for businesses that require employees to be on-site to perform their job functions, employers should take steps to reduce workforce density by staggering shifts. All employers should be adhering to CDC and OSHA guidelines to provide a safe and clean working environment and ensuring that employees follow those guidelines as well. It is important to be familiar with executive orders that might impact travel in your state.

Q: I missed work because I was sick and didn’t have enough sick days to cover. Can my employer punish me?

A: Generally, employers can fire at-will employees who have missed too much time from work and have exceeded their allotted sick days. However, the coronavirus is an unprecedented circumstance and the recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act guarantees two weeks of paid leave, to a maximum of $511 per day, to anyone sick or quarantined due to the virus, with the caveat that companies of l more than 500 employees are exempted. There are provisions that can exclude a small business with under 50 employees when these new requirements would jeopardize the company’s viability. Employees that are able to telework are also exempted from the new sick leave provisions.

Those eligible to use the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can take two weeks of unpaid leave and an additional ten weeks of leave at two-thirds salary, should they qualify. (Under the amended guidelines provided by the Families First Act, to qualify for the FMLA employees need only to have worked for a company of over 50 employees for a period of 30 days.)

Q: I have been quarantined at home and can’t work. I don’t have time available to take off. What legal options do I have?

A: Under the rules of the recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act, those in quarantine due to infection are eligible for paid leave for a period of up to two weeks:

  1. If they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have been placed in quarantine by a doctor or public health official (at the regular rate of pay)
  2. If they’re caring for someone placed under official quarantine or a child that doesn’t have daycare due to coronavirus-related closures (at two-thirds regular rate of pay).

It should be noted that quarantine is different from the practice of “social distancing” that most have been asked to undertake.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Q: Can I use FMLA even if I’m not infected? Can I use it to take care of my children, since I no longer have childcare?

A: The newly supplemented Family Medical Leave Act allows eligible employees to take leave of up to twelve weeks total to care for children now at home due to school closures under the provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. However, the first two weeks of leave are unpaid, and the subsequent paid weeks are only at two-thirds of your regular rate of pay and capped at $200 a day. Employees can use accrued vacation or paid time off for those first two weeks or those two weeks may be covered by the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act at two-thirds your regular rate of pay.

Unsafe work environment

Q: My coworker is showing signs of sickness; what do I do?

A: If a coworker appears to be sick, you should notify management so that they can take the proper steps to send the employee home and have them self-isolate. Employees that came into contact with the potentially ill employee may also be asked to self-quarantine, which is within the rights of your employer, provided they don’t do so on a discriminatory basis. If your employer refuses to take action, you may be able to press your employer on the matter on the grounds of an unsafe work environment.

Q: I don’t feel comfortable working in the office during this pandemic. What protection do I have if I refuse to go in?

A: Employers are generally within their rights to demand employees come to work, but there are some circumstances under which you may be protected. If an employer is attempting to force you into work, you may be protected under OSHA provisions which allow employees to refuse to work in what could be considered an imminent danger of death or serious injury. Employees are also protected under the National Labor Relations Act if they are acting in concert with other employees to protest against an unsafe working environment. It is important to be familiar with executive orders that might impact your state.

Personal information safety

Q: Is my personal, private information safe during a pandemic?

A: Questions about your health and your job security might be at the front of your mind at the moment, but the current crisis extends to your personal data as well. The chaotic nature of daily events and our desire for answers and help has only created more opportunities for fraud and data theft via scams and phishing. Given how tenuous all of our situations are, we can’t afford to have our identity or credit card number stolen. IDShield helps families protect against fraud and identity theft for less than $15 a month.

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