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Coronavirus and work: what a boss can and cannot make you do

The spread of the new coronavirus 2019-nCoV takes the relationship between employers and employees to a new level. Both sides are now trying to figure out their rights and responsibilities to curb the spread of this virus, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Photo: Shutterstock

Caught between trying to keep the 2019-nCoV virus from spreading in their workplaces and minimizing business disruptions, employers are issuing all manner of orders - unthinkable just a few weeks ago. From quarantining workers to moving to remote work, even orders requiring reporting of personal travel.

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Meanwhile, many employees are wondering how far their superiors can go in an attempt to protect them from the spread of the 2019-nCoV virus, and which of the requirements are excessive.

To better understand what is acceptable and necessary to overcome the crisis, The Wall Street Journal consulted with employment lawyers and other experts. Answers are often somewhere in between the Disabled Americans Act or ADA, which seeks to protect people's privacy, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards designed to protect workers. But, according to experts, the totality of labor standards and rules suggests that it is reasonable to adhere to the following recommendations.

Here are answers to some of the most common questions from employees.

Personal travel

Can an employer cancel my vacation and instead make me work?

In most jobs, yes. Leave times are not guaranteed by federal law, and most employers have the right to cancel leave and require workers to return to work, says Kenneth Dow-Schmidt, professor of labor law at Indiana University in Bloomington. The exception is when an employee is covered by a union agreement or a specific work agreement that provides for a certain number of days off, he says.

However, most bosses understand that canceling a vacation will necessarily cause a negative reaction, so if this is not required by an emergency, they will not.

What if my boss tells me to cancel my personal travel plans. It is legal?

“Employers cannot dictate how you spend your personal time, even if they make travel recommendations for specific regions,” explains Roberta Matuson, executive trainer and author of Evergreen Talents: A Guide to Hiring and Developing a Sustainable Workforce.

Does the company have to pay for a canceled trip?

If the supervisor insists that the employee cancel the trip, ask for compensation. Some employers find this request quite reasonable. But if this is not specified in the employment contract, then they are not legally required to pay, says Mr. Dau-Schmidt.

Work remotely

I really feel uncomfortable due to travel to work and an increased risk of contact with sick people. Am I entitled to work from home?

According to Mitch Boyarsky, a lawyer for labor and employment at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, employers are generally not required to allow work remotely. An exception is an employee who meets ADA requirements for disability-based remote work. The exception is if the government enforces quarantine, other lawyers say. Then the employer may have more reasons to allow remote work.

I feel great and I don’t think that I am infected with something, but my boss insists that I work at home. Is this rightful?

Yes. Employers have the right to ask employees to work remotely, says Angela B. Cornell, a professor of clinical practice at Cornell Law School.

For example, you can ask workers who have recently traveled to China, Italy, Iran, or another country that has been particularly affected by the 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak to work at home for a period of time. But it’s not quite right to ask workers over 70 to work from home, even if it’s good intentions, because people in old age are a protected class in accordance with federal law.

My employer asked me to work from home. Does this mean that they can order me not to go on business or not to go to church?

Although your boss may ask you not to go to the office, he cannot forbid you to go to other places or, say, use the subway. However, your employer may just recommend that you stay home, says Heather Bussing, an employment lawyer in Sonoma County, California, from Rybicki & Associates PC.

“You can train and reward employees, but you cannot control them,” she told employers.

At work

My work requires me to have close contact with a large number of clients. Am I entitled to say that I will not be able to do my job due to the outbreak of coronavirus 2019-nCoV?

Workers are protected from sanctions by the employer if they refuse jobs that they consider unsafe, says Howard Mavity of Fisher & Phillips LLP, a law firm providing workplace safety. He advises employers to listen carefully to workers' problems.

“You cannot punish anyone for a safety complaint,” he says.

If, for example, a housekeeper in a hotel has undergone the necessary training for protection against Covid-19 and is provided with the proper gloves and equipment, then it may be inappropriate to refuse to clean the hotel room. But if it became known that the hotel serves guests with COVID-19, this is a different story. Employees may opt out of this assignment, he says.

Should I go on a business trip?

Minnesota employment lawyer Kate Bischoff says your boss has the right to demand that you go on a business trip.

“There may be an ultimatum: either you go or you will lose your job,” she said.

Her advice to employees: Provide convincing arguments in favor of the fact that with the help of technology, a meeting can be held online no less efficiently. She also encourages employers to be cautious in their statements.

“If you deliver such an ultimatum, all employees of the company will quickly find out about this, and later they can rethink the need to work with you. This is a strategic mistake, ”the lawyer explained.

Depending on the circumstances, this could also be a legal mistake, says Daniel Schwartz, partner at Shipman & Goodwin, a law firm that primarily represents Connecticut employers. He recalled a Connecticut case where a court ruled that it was illegal to require a worker to travel to an unsafe place.

Can an employer measure my temperature at work?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, measuring an employee’s temperature is considered a medical examination and usually goes beyond what the employer can do or require. But with a particularly serious or widespread outbreak of influenza, such a check is acceptable. This rule is probably also applicable to the 2019-nCoV coronavirus epidemic.

But even if it is legal to measure the temperature of an employee, many lawyers and health experts do not advise doing this.

“Perhaps they just have the flu,” admits Schwartz.

Health officials have confirmed that many people with the 2019-nCoV coronavirus did not have a fever.

What if I get COVID-19 at work? Will my employer be held responsible?

It is unlikely, because this is usually difficult to prove. According to Cornell, if an employee is injured at work, for example, slipping or falling, he is entitled to compensation, which may cover the cost of medical care and loss of wages.

But with the 2019-nCoV coronavirus, it can be difficult to pinpoint where a person has contracted it, making it difficult to hold an employer accountable for medical expenses. Typically, an employee must prove that the illness was caused by “work-specific conditions” and there were no other conditions where he could get sick, according to the Fisher & Phillips employer guidelines.


My employer knew that his colleague had contracted the virus, but did not immediately inform the rest of the staff. Aren't they obliged to do this?

Actually, yes. Companies have a responsibility to warn those who may have come into contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, Cornell said. Local health authorities may also recommend that the public is aware of this.

But it is very unlikely that the company will give the name of the infected employee. This could violate ADA confidentiality requirements, Maviti says.

Instead, employers say that an employee on a particular floor or part of a building has become infected.

“It will take everyone about 1,5 seconds to understand that you are talking about Joe without mentioning his name,” says Maviti.

On the subject: The consequences of quarantine in New York become painful: what is happening in the city

If I come to work with COVID-19, do I have to tell my employer about this? Can't I limit myself to asking for a sick leave without much explanation?

According to Matuson, there can be no legal requirement, but there is an ethical one. If you work in the office or personally communicate with colleagues, it is recommended that you notify your company of your diagnosis so that managers can warn others.

If you work remotely and don’t have direct contact with colleagues, clients, or other people about your work, disclosing your diagnosis is optional.

“You can just say I feel bad,” Matuson advises.

As reported by ForumDaily:

  • A new virus was discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. In 2020, it covered all continents except Antarctica. On March 11, US President Donald Trump imposed a ban on entering the United States from EU countries. The ban came into force on Friday, March 13, and will last at least 30 days. In particular, it will concern people who have visited the Schengen area over the past 14 days.
  • March 13 Trump due to coronavirus introduced a nationwide emergency regime in the US.
  • On March 11, WHO recognized the situation with the coronavirus pandemic, which covered more than 110 countries. Symptoms of Coronavirus COVID-19 Disease Available here.
  • Virologist's tips on how to protect yourself from infection - link.
  • Taking advantage of the panic in the society because of the epidemic, fraudsters came up with several schemes to deceive victims of personal data and money. The most common ones can be found here.
  • Having succumbed to panic due to a state of emergency, Americans are massively buying toilet paperbut they cannot explain why they need it during the epidemic.
  • Trump has signed into law on paid leave due to coronavirus. Who can count on paid leave, read here.
  • Read all news about coronavirus in our special project.
Miscellaneous questions work Educational program coronavirus Special Projects

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