Can Your Boss Make You Come into Work During the COVID-19 Outbreak?

A USA Today article answers all your questions about what your employer can and cannot ask you to, and if you have to come into work during this time.

Those who can work from home around America are doing so—but many have lost their jobs over the last two weeks as companies struggle to stay open. However, what about all of those workers whose jobs are deemed “essential” or those who work in industries that seem “essential” but are not?

One USA Today article answers many of your questions about what employers can and cannot ask you to do during this uncertain time. Can your boss actually force you to work during the pandemic, and can he or she force you to come to work?

Experts say the answer is no, but the laws are not so clear-cut.

The answer depends on the job you have,” said Richard Reice, a lawyer who heads the labor enforcement division at the law firm Michelman & Robinson. If your local government defines your role as “essential,” you may have to comply with your employer’s wishes or risk termination.

For example, if you are a pharmacist at a CVS, a police officer, or a sanitation worker, your employer can ask you to come to work. “If you don’t,” said Reice, “that would be insubordination, misconduct or quitting.”

Basically, federal guidelines allow state and local authorities to decide which businesses are essential during crises. Generally, essential industries are grocery store workers, food laborers, medical staff and utilities and transportation workers. Government workers, law enforcement and emergency personnel are also included.

What protections do I have?

If you are not considered an “essential” worker, you are probably within legal bounds to stay home and work from home (if possible)—especially if you are in a hot zone of cases.

OSHA’s “General Duty Clause” requires workplaces to offer environments that are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” In the case of COVID-19, the virus is definitely “something that is likely to cause serious injury or death.”

This usually isn’t about worker well-being only, though. Employers are often inclined to figure out all other options such as telework and temporary closures before asking people to leave their homes. Otherwise, they risk losing a huge chunk of their workforce, according to experts.

Does my boss have to tell me if someone at work gets the virus?

“The general answer is yes,” said Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of employee advocacy group Workplace Fairness.

They cannot legally reveal the infected person’s identity without written consent, according to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Only official health agencies like the CDC or health departments may disclose identifiable information without a patient’s authorization.

What should I do if my boss doesn’t listen?

If your boss is pressuring your to come in and your workplace is at high-risk for coronavirus, you can file a confidential safety and health complaint and request an OSHA inspection.

You could also contact your local government and let them know. “In the wake of the spreading outbreak, some local governments are using police to enforce business orders,” said Ndjatou.

With new updates on COVID-19 every day, it can be hard to keep up with everything, including what is expected of you for your job. Make sure you seek information and speak up when something’s not right and when your rights are violated.

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