Here’s what workers need to know about coronvirus restrictions at the office

With 18 deaths and more than 135 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Washington state as of Sunday afternoon, state officials and business leaders are scrambling to contain the spread of the disease without grinding the economy to a halt. For workers, that means a dizzying set of new and perhaps conflicting expectations.

In the best case scenario, employees (particularly in the Seattle-area tech industry) are given the flexibility to work from home for the foreseeable future. Some companies have staggered work shifts to reduce the number of people in the office at any given time to reduce the risk of exposure.

But not all workers have the luxury of working remotely or they might be reluctant to take sick or emergency leave for what could turn out to be allergies.

The New York Times spoke to employment lawyers about the evolving workplace restrictions as the virus spreads and what legal rights and protections workers have.

Joseph Deng, who specializes in employment and compensation law at Baker & McKenzie in Los Angeles, told the NYT that companies might develop more flexible and generous sick leave policies to encourage workers not to unnecessarily come into the office.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended “nonpunitive” policies for employees showing coronavirus symptoms.

Paying workers in these situations “will serve to incentivize employees to self-identify and self-quarantine,” Susan Gross Sholinsky, a lawyer with Epstein Becker Green in New York, told NYT.

While Washington is one of about a dozen states with paid sick leave laws, they may not be enough to cover lengthy stretches of time off for quarantine and treatment. 

“Union workers should review their collective bargaining agreements because they may have provisions that provide paid time off in an emergency,” the article noted.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) extended workers’ compensation protections to quarantined health workers and first responders on the front lines of the outbreak.

Employees in other industries may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits if they contracted the virus in the office or in a work-related capacity, such as during business travel.

Washington state’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave benefit is another option that workers may draw on.

When is it okay for an employer to require testing?

“If there is factual evidence someone has been exposed to the virus, an employer may ask that person to go through a medical exam or fitness for duty exam to determine whether they are ready to return to work,” Alka Ramchandani-Raj, an employment lawyer who specializes in occupational safety and health law at Littler, told NYT.

She added that employers must adopt neutral policies that protect everyone equally, unless a particular group is at higher risk. Seattle and King Count issued new guidelines advising people over 60 and pregnant women to avoid large social gatherings.

Emery Reddy helps workers. Call us if you have a question about workplace restrictions you’ve experienced relating to coronavirus, or if you have an L&I, workers’ comp, injury, or other employment law claim. You won’t get better advice.

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