Worker rights ques­tions loom as COVID- 19 con­tin­ues spread

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - SUNDAYBUSI­NESS - By Alexan­der Soule

As or­ga­ni­za­tions from schools to cor­po­ra­tions dis­pensed guid­ance this week to their em­ploy­ees on pro­ce­dures for deal­ing with any in­flux of coron­avirus in their lo­cales, an open ques­tion re­mains: What rights do work­ers have to set the pa­ram­e­ters un­der which they will go to work, based on their own as­sess­ment of risk?

Coron­avirus — des­ig­nated COVID- 19 by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion — rep­re­sents a new case study for worker rights when it comes to in­fec­tious disease. There’s no no di­rect par­al­lel in U.S. his­tory, given global travel to­day cou­pled with the virus’in­cu­ba­tion pe­riod prior to symp­toms sur­fac­ing, such as fevers and cough­ing.

Com­pa­nies with di­rect op­er­a­tions or part­ners in China have of­fered the first glimpse of the im­pact of coron­avirus and ini­tial re­sponses, in­clud­ing sev­eral in Con­necti­cut such as Mil­ford- based Sub­way, Nor­walk- based Book­ing Hold­ings and Dan­bury- based Iqvia Hold­ings.

In a let­ter this week to cus­tomers and busi­ness part­ners, the Walling­ford- based man­u­fac­turer of elec­tric com­po­nents Am­phe­nol noted the dif­fi­cul­ties of bal­anc­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to those en­ti­ties with con­cern for its own em­ploy­ees in China. Am­phe­nol’s steps have in­cluded es­tab­lish­ing “epi­demic con­trol com­mit­tees” at its China fa­cil­i­ties, screen­ing em­ploy­ees for any symp­toms prior to start­ing work, man­dat­ing quar­an­tines where nec­es­sary, and screen

ing vis­i­tors as well.

But across China, some com­pa­nies are deal­ing with sig­nif­i­cant ab­sen­teeism in their em­ployee ranks. On Thurs­day, the Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol and Preven­tion broached the pos­si­bil­ity of that oc­cur­ring as well in the United States, par­tic­u­larly for or­ga­ni­za­tions that have reg­u­lar in­fluxes of vis­i­tors or send em­ploy­ees to lo­ca­tions out­side their con­trol, whether lo­cally or on busi­ness trips.

Through Tues­day, a ma­jor­ity of Global Busi­ness Travel Associatio­n mem­bers had can­celed at least some in­ter­na­tional trips, the group in­di­cated in flash poll re­sults re­leased this week, but only 7 per­cent had done so for state­side travel.

“We are in un­charted waters. When look­ing to prece­dent un­der this par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, there’s not much of it,” said Gary Phe­lan, a part­ner with the law firm Mitchell & Shea­han with of­fices in Strat­ford and West­port, who teaches dis­abil­ity law at Quin­nip­iac Uni­ver­sity. “For ex­am­ple, let’s say an em­ployee says, ‘ I’m not go­ing to travel. I’m not go­ing to get on an air­plane,’ and the em­ployer says, ‘ That’s your job. ... You don’t go, you’re fired.’ That may raise is­sues with re­gard to wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion.”

Duty to pro­tect from in­fec­tious disease?

Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent es­ti­mates by the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics, on any given day U. S. em­ploy­ers have an ab­sen­teeism rate of 1.9 per­cent due to ill­ness or in­jury, tak­ing up the slack on half that lost pro­duc­tiv­ity through other work­ers cov­er­ing du­ties, or em­ploy­ees get­ting caught back up on their re­turn.

A decade ago, the Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued wide- rang­ing guid­ance on how work­places should pre­pare for a flu pan­demic, en­vi­sion­ing a sce­nario in which job ab­sen­teeism topped out 40 per­cent, whether the re­sult of sick em­ploy­ees and fam­ily mem­bers, or

fear of con­tract­ing the flu on the job.

Since then, the ques­tion of manda­tory flu shots for em­ploy­ees has dom­i­nated le­gal thought on the topic, with the pos­si­bil­ity of the ques­tion be­ing linked to any fu­ture coron­avirus vac­cine as em­ploy­ers look to head off any dis­rup­tions to their op­er­a­tions. But in its most re­cent anal­y­sis pub­lished last year of work­place ill­ness and in­jury, the AFL- CIO called on the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to have OSHA bet­ter ad­dress the is­sue of in­fec­tious disease in the work­place.

Phe­lan says el­e­ments of the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act could ap­ply to le­gal dis­putes aris­ing from de­ci­sions re­lated to coron­avirus by em­ploy­ers or work­ers.

In the past few weeks, in­sur­ance think tanks have raised the ques­tion of whether em­ploy­ees could file for work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion cov­er­age of med­i­cal bills as a re­sult of coron­avirus, with the ob­vi­ous stick­ing point on be­ing able to prove they con­tracted in the course of their em­ploy­ment.

The Wash­ing­ton, D. C.- based non­profit Work­place Fair­ness notes work­ers can use the fed­eral Fam­ily and Med­i­cal Leave Act, al­low­ing them to take time off for weeks with­out com­pen­sa­tion, but whether FMLA can be in­voked by an em­ployee for pre­cau­tion­ary rea­sons is an­other ques­tion.

Work­place Fair­ness notes em­ploy­ers have wide lat­i­tude to bar work­ers from re­turn­ing to work if they fear a com­mu­ni­ca­ble disease. But it does not spec­ify if work­ers can do so them­selves, and notes there is sig­nif­i­cant lee­way for in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“When there is a fear of a na­tion­wide pan­demic, and the spread of a disease makes the news, em­ploy­ers are likely to con­sider the ill­ness ( a) se­ri­ous med­i­cal con­di­tion,” Work­place Fair­ness states. “Your em­ployer does have a duty to pro­tect you from rec­og­nized haz­ards. How­ever, there is no spe­cific duty that de­tails what an em­ployer must do to pro­tect you from an in­fec­tious disease.”

Getty Im­ages

A Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health mon­i­tor tracks coron­avirus cases across the globe on Thurs­day.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.