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Federal Laws that May Protect Employees from Coronavirus Hazards

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Businesses across the United States have closed their doors to comply with state-wide closures and mandates.

The Illinois Governor issued a “stay-at-home” order back in March, and it is unclear when it will be lifted. However, some parts of the country are starting to lift restrictive orders, at least for certain businesses.

Businesses have had to respond by laying off workers, cutting back hours significantly, and even shutting down altogether. However, as companies restart operations, some workers may not be comfortable going back to work. Certain federal laws may protect workers who are not comfortable working in their positions if they are not sufficiently safeguarded from the potential spread of COVID-19.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970

Many workers are generally familiar with OSHA, which is a federal agency that is designed to help promote the health and safety of the United States workforce. What they may not realize is that OSHA provides rights to workers if they feel that their workplace is unsafe, even before an injury occurs.

In general, employers are required to ensure that their team’s workplace is free from hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. The potential physical harm component has traditionally included viruses and other infectious diseases or risks.

In the context of COVID-19, that typically means that employers should:

  • Follow CDC recommendations regarding social distancing wherever possible
  • Implement the use of masks and other protective gear
  • Permit additional protections and precautions for those in higher-risk categories, such as those with chronic respiratory illnesses, diabetes, or heart disease, and older workers
  • Follow appropriate disinfecting and cleanliness protocols

OSHA regulations state that if an employee “refuses in good faith to expose himself to the dangerous condition, he [will] be protected against subsequent discrimination.” In some situations, that regulation can give you the option to refuse to work in an unsafe environment without fear of termination, provided that the fear is reasonable.

AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT (ADA) 

Employees with prior medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID or more likely to experience more serious effects from the virus may also be protected under the ADA.  Those who were diagnosed with cancer, have asthma, heart conditions, or other long term conditions that may compromise their immune system may request accommodations that eliminate their exposure to COVID 19.  These accommodations may include working remotely, working in isolation, or being provided with appropriate protective apparel such as masks, face shields, and other protective clothing.  A refusal to grant these accommodations may violate the ADA

Application of These Federal Laws 

The unique circumstances that COVID-19 has created make many people unsure of what an unsafe working environment looks like. It is unclear how or even whether these protections will protect workers in many situations, but it seems like this is the very situation in which these laws should apply.

If you have serious concerns about the safety of your working environment, you may have legal options. The employment lawyers at Goldman & Ehrlich can help. Call today for more information, or Contact Us to set up a consultation: 312-332-6733.