The idea that employers are responsible at some level for employee safety and conditions of their property isn’t new.
For example, there is a legal term called premises liability. Premises liability refers to injuries or death that occur because of dangerous conditions or poor maintenance on a property.
Beyond the existing laws and regulations; however, there is a whole new set of issues, employers have to think about because of the coronavirus pandemic or covid-19.
Employers that have either been open throughout lockdowns because they are deemed essential or that are reopening are having to consider their employees’ health and safety in different ways.
It’s leaving many employers trying to play catch-up as far as figuring out what their responsibility is in this situation.
The following are some important things to know about employer responsibilities stemming from covid-19, which perhaps may be new.
Amazon Facing Heat
For many businesses, they closed their doors in March and are just starting to gradually reopen, based on their state or local guidelines.
However, the businesses that stayed open throughout mandated shutdowns are facing scrutiny in many cases for their handling of the situation. Looking at these businesses can serve as a model for businesses that closed and are reopening.
Amazon is one such example.
From the start, critics and employees have said Amazon isn’t doing enough to protect workers.
Amazon has hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers who continued reporting to their jobs throughout March and April, while many others were at home.
Some workers protested because of what they felt was a lack of safety protocols in these warehouses. New York City officials also launched an investigation against a possible improper retaliation when an employee was fired after being involved in a protest.
In response to criticism, perhaps, Amazon has raised warehouse workers’ wages and they also added quarantine leave. Amazon is offering overtime at double pay and the company said they’ve worked on adding more space between workstations.
Even so, employees have continued to speak out saying that they don’t feel their employer is forthcoming with them about cases in their facilities.
What Are the Federal Guidelines?
Since the start of the pandemic, the CDC and OSHA have issued guidance and recommendations, but not requirements as far as protecting essential workers.
Some of their recommendations include:
- There should be a physical distance between employees of at least six feet, and there should also be at least six feet between employees and customers for the protection of employees and the public.
- The CDC recommends that everyone wear cloth face masks in public settings where they can’t maintain a distance of at least six feet. When physical distancing isn’t always possible, the CDC says employers should consider providing not only face masks but also plastic face shields.
- Employers should think carefully about whether they can offer more flexibility in how employees work. This could include the development of telecommuting policies, for example, or staggered shifts and more flexible hours.
- Employers should promote frequent, thorough handwashing and provide sanitizing when it’s not possible to wash hands.
- Employees shouldn’t share equipment or tools with coworkers.
- Employers should keep up with cleaning their facilities and disinfecting surfaces.
Sick Leave Policies
Again, while not law, the CDC also has guidelines for employers as far as how they should deal with sick leave right now.
Main points of the CDC’s recommendations on sick leave include:
- Sick leave policies should be flexible and based on currently available public health guidance. Employees need to be made aware of what the policies are.
- Employees should have the opportunity to stay home not only if they are sick, but also if their family member is sick and they have to care for them.
- Even if you don’t currently offer sick leave to all of your employees, you should consider creating emergency policies.
- It shouldn’t be required that employees show a doctor’s note if they are sick. Because of the situation, employees may not be able to easily get this kind of documentation.
Covid and the Family and Medical Leave Act
Some employees are eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under FMLA, an employer has to provide their employee with protected unpaid leave for certain situations related to family and health.
Employees are eligible when they have met certain criteria, such as working for the employer for at least 12 months and working at a location where at least 50 employees are employed.
Eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of leave, although it’s unpaid, but at the same time, they can’t lose their job for doing so. Employees who take FMLA leave are also entitled to have the continuation of their group health insurance coverage under the same terms as if they were still working continuously.
Families First Coronavirus Response Act
Legislation recently passed called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), includes the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act.
The provisions became effective starting April 1, 2020, and then apply to leave taken between that time and the last day of 2020.
Private sector employees are required to adhere to the paid sick leave components of the legislation if they have fewer than 500 employees.
There is a small business exemption, but to be eligible, you would have to provide documentation showing you meet certain criteria.
Under the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, you are required to pay an employee for hours they would have normally been scheduled to work, even if it’s more than 40 in a week.
The regular rate of pay used for the calculation of paid leave time is the average of your regular rate over six months leading up to the date you take leave.
Finally, you may be eligible for paid sick leave not only if you are sick or caring for someone who is sick, but also if you are at home because you have a child who isn’t in school or whose child care isn’t available.