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What to Do if You Got COVID-19 After Being Forced Back to Work

a grocery store cashier with a maskThe COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented time for workers and families across the United States. Many have either lost their jobs or been forced to make extreme changes to slow the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, a large portion of the population still operates in work environments at high risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission.

First responders, restaurant workers, grocery store clerks, and other essential employees perform their jobs much the same way as they did before the start of the pandemic. These individuals come into contact with many different people every day and, as such, face a greater risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.

It’s inevitable that some of these essential employees will contract COVID-19. While federal law provides two weeks of paid leave after contracting COVID-19, some employers disregard this protection and ask their workers to come back to work before they have fully recovered. Learn your legal options if this has happened to you.

Who Is Most At-Risk of COVID-19?

COVID-19 has killed over 200,000 Americans at the time of writing. There is no doubt that this virus has affected families from all walks of life. However, there is no denying that some Americans are at a greater risk of COVID-19 exposure than others. Most of this has to do with one’s profession.

Essential employees are those who “conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continue critical infrastructure operations.” Essential employees include those who work in the following sectors:

  • Energy
  • Child care
  • Water and wastewater
  • Agriculture and food production
  • Critical retail (grocery stores, hardware stores, mechanics)
  • Critical trades (construction workers, electricians, plumbers)
  • Transportation
  • Nonprofits and social service organizations
  • First responders, including EMTs, police officers, and firefighters

These essential employees have a much greater chance of contracting COVID-19 in their workplace and spreading it to members of their households.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government passed measures to protect workers and their families.

Can You Take Time Off for COVID-19?

In March 2020, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). This act entitles certain employees to two weeks of paid leave for reasons related to COVID-19.

Specifically, the FFCRA allows for:

  • Two weeks of paid sick leave at the employee’s regular rate of pay where the employee is unable to work because the employee is quarantined and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis; or
  • Two weeks of paid sick leave at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay because the employee is unable to work because of a bona fide need to care for an individual subject to quarantine, or care for a child (under 18 years of age) whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.

This mandate applies to certain public employers and private employers with fewer than 500 employees.

Therefore, if you contract COVID-19 and you work for a covered public employer or for a private employer with fewer than 500 employees, you are legally entitled to take two weeks of paid leave at your full rate of pay. Similarly, you may take two weeks of paid leave (at two-thirds your rate of pay) if you are caring for a child or loved one with COVID-19.

Your Rights as an Employee

Many workers do not realize they have rights. Exercising your rights as an employee is vital during the COVID-19 pandemic. We provide the answers to three questions that are particularly important during this difficult time.

What if My Employer Forced Me Back to Work Too Early?

Your employer may not force you back to work before the two weeks provided under the FFCRA have expired. Employers who violate these protections will be subject to the penalties described in Sections 16 and 17 of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

If your employer told you that you must return to work before the two weeks expired, or else you would be terminated, then your employer is in violation of the law. In this case, it is in your best interest to contact an experienced attorney who can protect your rights.

What Should I Do if My Employer Won’t Provide Handwashing Breaks or Enforce Social Distancing?

Some employers do not want to spend the money to protect their workers from COVID-19 transmission, even though it is necessary to reduce the risk of exposure in the workplace.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have put forth guidelines for employers to protect workers’ and customers’ safety. These guidelines include the following measures:

  • 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 in the workplace.
  • Improve the building ventilation system.

It should be noted that these measures are guidelines, not legal mandates. Therefore, they cannot be legally enforced. However, if you feel like your employer is not taking adequate measures to protect you and other employees, you may file a complaint with OSHA. You may file such a complaint and be protected from any negative retaliation from your employer such as a demotion, termination, and more.

OSHA can then determine whether your employer is in violation of the agency’s “general duty” clause, which requires employers to:

  • Furnish a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.

If I Contract COVID-19 at Work, Am I Eligible for Workers’ Compensation?

If you contract COVID-19 on the job, you may worry how you will be able to pay for your medical treatment.

It’s difficult to get COVID-19 covered under workers’ compensation because it is nearly impossible to prove that you contracted the virus at work as opposed to somewhere else, like your home or on public transportation.

However, some states have authorized federal workers to get claims approved under the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA). These employees include first responders, law enforcement officers, firefighters, healthcare workers, public health personnel, and more. These workers may be entitled to the following benefits:

  • If a COVID-19 claim is filed by a person in high-risk employment, the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP) DFEC will accept that the exposure to COVID-19 was proximately caused by the nature of the employment. If the employer supports the claim and that the exposure occurred, and the CA-1 is filed within 30 days, the employee is eligible to receive Continuation of Pay for up to 45 days.
  • If a COVID-19 claim is filed by a person whose position is not considered high-risk, OWCP DFEC will require the claimant to provide a factual statement and any available evidence concerning exposure. The employing agency will also be expected to provide OWCP DFEC with any information they have regarding the alleged exposure, and to indicate whether they are supporting or controverting the claim. If the employer supports the claim and that the exposure occurred, and the CA-1 is filed within 30 days, the employee is eligible to receive Continuation of Pay for up to 45 days.

If you have had your rights violated during the COVID-19 pandemic, our attorneys can help you file the appropriate claims and recover the compensation you need for medical treatment and lost wages.

Contact Shrader & Associates L.L.P. at (877) 958-7920 to schedule a consultation.

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