Workers Rights During Public Health Emergencies
Disasters and emergencies are unpredictable, making it nearly impossible to adequately plan for them. To protect workers, various employment laws apply when a public health emergency arises. Both employers and employees should be aware of how these laws impact them.
Read below to learn how labor and employment intersect with state and federal laws for public health emergencies, as well as information about insurance, quarantines, sick leave, and more.
Employers could face consequences if they attempt to force employees to come to work sick. The Occupational Safety and Health Adminitration requires employers to maintain a safe workplace. This includes avoiding knowingly risking the spread of infectious diseases.
Yes, employers may grant advance leave to employees if they are sick with an infectious disease, such as COVID. However, it is up to the employer whether they do so or not; Employees are not entitled to advanced leave.
For federal employees, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) describes the limitations of advanced sick leave here.
Although the CDC recommends all individuals who are exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine even if they were not infected, it is up to employers whether they permit employees to work from home. Employees should ask their employers to allow them to temporarily work from home so they may quarantine. Alternatively, employees can request paid or unpaid time off.
Yes. A federal agency can order its employees to evacuate their regular worksites and work from home during a pandemic health crisis. (This applies when WHO makes the declaration — not state or local agencies.)
Yes. An employer may encourage or require employees to telework as an infection-control or prevention strategy, including based on timely information from public health authorities about pandemics, public health emergencies, or other similar conditions. Telework also may be a reasonable accommodation. See workplacefairness.org for more information on health and safety measures.
Generally yes, if telework is being provided as a reasonable accommodation for a qualified individual with a disability, or if required by a union or employment contract, then you must pay the same hourly rate or salary.
If this is not the case and you do not have a union contract or other employment contracts, under the FLSA employers generally have to pay employees only for the hours they actually work, whether at home or at the employer’s office. However, the FLSA requires employers to pay non-exempt workers at least the minimum wage for all hours worked, and at least time and one half the regular rate of pay for hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek. Salaried exempt employees generally must receive their full salary in any week in which they perform any work, subject to certain very limited exceptions.
If exempt employees cannot work from home, and cannot come into work, an employer must pay the employee unless the exempt employee does not work for the entire workweek.
The CDC strongly encourages people who have an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, to stay home as a measure to prevent the spread of such disease. If you do not receive sick leave or paid leave, absent state or municipal requirements that require paid leave or new legislation at the federal level, your employer isn’t required to pay you for days that you call in sick.”
Some states have paid sick leave laws. Visit workplace.org for more information on state paid sick leave.
If a state or government has issued an Executive Order that prohibits or limits the movement of individuals for the health and safety of the general public, such as “Stay at Home” or “Shelter-In-Place” orders issued during the COVID-19 pandemic, employers cannot force employees to go into work if they are non-essential workers. Employers are encouraged to allow non-essential workers to telework to the full extent possible and to use all available paid and unpaid leave.
Whether an employee is considered “essential” or not should be defined by any relevant order and may be determined on a case-by-case basis.