5 On Your Side

Safe at work? Employee rights and COVID-19

Posted April 1, 2020 2:12 p.m. EDT
Updated April 1, 2020 7:42 p.m. EDT

Many of you have reached out with questions and concerns regarding your rights when it comes to workplace safety.

From hospitals and doctors offices to grocery and home improvement stores, employees want protection from COVID-19 and protection from losing their paycheck.

5 On Your Side's Monica Laliberte talked with a legal expert for answers.

"We're inundated with these calls," said Laura Noble. Her firm, The Noble Law, specializes in employment issues.

North Carolina is an "at-will" state, meaning employers can fire workers "at will" for just about any reason except for discrimination against a protected class.

"I can appreciate how difficult these choices are between your paycheck and the health of your family," she said. "I'm hoping that there will be additional laws and guidance that come shortly that will help people not have to make that choice."

Until then, Noble says employees and employers need to attempt to negotiate needs with each other.

She recommends employees put concerns in writing. "So that later on down the road, there's not a question of whether they knew about it or not," Noble says. "Once they know about it, they are obligated to undertake efforts to make sure that the workplace is a safe environment."

5 On Your Side has also heard from those considered "essential employees" who say their workplace doesn't allow them to wear a mask or gloves because of the image it projects.

"I think it's an indefensible position for any employer to take in the current conditions," said Noble.

She adds employees with underlying health conditions may already have protections under existing laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, FFCRA, also takes effect April 1, 2020. It covers paid leave for COVID-19 related family care, including child care, for those at companies with fewer than 500 employees.

But if your concerns are solely about safety, Noble says "The question is, is that workplace considered dangerous enough that you can excuse yourself from that workplace without an employer having the ability to fire you?"

If you believe your workplace is dangerous, file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Noble adds if your employer is considered essential, is taking safety measures and needs you to work, you need to decide what's right for you.

"The choice as it is today, without that guidance (from lawmakers), is you can choose to stay at home. Understand that you may get fired, you may have a cause of action against your employer down the line, that doesn't pay your bills today," Noble said.

"You may be eligible for some unemployment benefits, but it's not certain. You'd have to apply and see if under the circumstances you qualify, or you may be eligible for some expanded family medical leave," she added. "But those are all maybes when a paycheck is a certainty. It's a difficult time."​

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