The novel coronavirus has caused immeasurable suffering, both physical and economic. For employers struggling to stay in business, there are a number of ticking timebombs they must try to avoid to keep employees and customers safe, and keep their business afloat. With so much still unknown, this is a fraught time where mistakes in managing their workforces could lead to employee COVID-19 lawsuits.
10 Potential Causes of Employee COVID-19 Lawsuits
Businesses that still have employees working on-site run the risk that a single infected worker may send the virus ripping through the entire workforce. While workers’ compensation laws may prevent employees from suing, their family members who become ill or suffer through a worker’s illness face no such constraints.
Businesses should be sure to review new IIPP guidelines from OSHA that included COVID-19 specific wording and protocols.
Sick time and paid leave
Congress enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March, guaranteeing full-time employees of small businesses 80 hours of sick leave (part-timers get a prorated amount) and up to 12 weeks off for employees in certain circumstances. State and local laws may entitle workers to additional leave. Mistakes in administering these benefits could prompt lawsuits. If faced with one of these requests, be sure it is thoroughly reviewed by an HR professional.
Because the coronavirus originated in China, there have been reports of Asian-Americans being targets of racist actions. Employers must take care to avoid the appearance of making workplace decisions based even partly on employees’ race.
Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for these workers.
Employees who become ill from COVID-19 may suffer after-effects that include trouble breathing, speaking and working at their former pace. Employers must accommodate these workers to the extent that is practical.
Wage and hour violations
Non-exempt employees working remotely may be working more than their regular hours, missing rest and meal breaks, and using their own equipment.
Employers must keep careful records, reimburse employees for their use of personal equipment when warranted, and remind employees to take mandatory breaks.
Battered retirement plans
Stock markets have cratered since the beginning of the year, taking retirement account balances down with them.
Questions may be asked about whether fund managers did enough to limit the damage. Employees who are not satisfied with the answers may go to court.
Health information privacy
Employee health information privacy is protected by HIPAA. Employers must secure the records of infected employees from unauthorized access by individuals within and outside the company.
If screening employees upon arrival, be sure that results from these screenings are kept confidential to protect the privacy of each employee.
Collective bargaining agreements may contain provisions that go beyond federal requirements for breaks, paid leave, layoff notices, and workplace safety.
Employers must keep their CBAs in mind and work with their unions to avoid contract violations.
Disparate impact from layoffs
If layoffs are necessary, employers must take a thoughtful approach when deciding which employees to part company with. An appearance of singling out older workers or other protected classes under discrimination laws could invite lawsuits.
The Workers Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires some employers to provide at least 60 days’ notice before layoffs. Many businesses’ revenues fell off the cliff so quickly that they were unable to provide that much notice.
A final thought
The pandemic is a crisis that few businesses foresaw. The effects, including the litigation, may haunt them for a long time to come. Taking appropriate steps now can protect the success and wellbeing of the business in the long term.