business liability

What Every Business Should Know About Workers’ Rights and Business Liability During COVID-19

18 May 2020

On May 8, 2020, California’s stay-at-home order was modified to reflect the state’s entering Stage 2 of its COVID-19 pandemic response, where businesses in the retail, manufacturing, and logistics industries can reopen, subject to certain restrictions (e.g., delivery and curbside pickup only).  Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom also hinted that entering Stage 3 “may not even be a month away.”  Below are some questions and answers about workers’ rights and business liability that may arise as businesses reopen.

Can workers obtain Workers’ Compensation benefits for injuries arising out of COVID-19 illness?

In California, workers’ compensation benefits are the exclusive remedy for injuries that a worker sustains from a condition of their employment.  Some states’ workers’ compensation statutes exclude coverage for “non-occupational diseases” or “ordinary diseases of life,” such as a cold or flu, which may arguably encompass COVID-19.  However, California’s Labor & Workforce Development Agency (“LWDA”) has clarified that workers are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits for injuries resulting from COVID-19.

However, generally speaking it  is the worker’s burden to show that they were exposed to and contracted COVID-19 during their regular course of work.  This showing will ultimately depend on the unique circumstances of each claim, including, for example, whether there were any known cases of COVID-19 infections at their workplace, whether the premises were contaminated with the virus, and whether the employer implemented safety and social distancing provisions.

On May 6, 2020, Governor Newsom changed the forgoing general presumption and issued an executive order that  creates a rebuttable presumption for a period of 60 days (May 6 – July 5) that may entitle workers who work outside their homes to workers’ compensation benefits if they contract the coronavirus.  Under the recent executive order, it will be presumed that the worker contracted COVID-19 during their regular course of work if (1) the employee tested positive with COVID-19 within 14 days after working at their place of employment; (2) the last day must have been on or after March 19, 2020; (3) the worker’s place of employment is not their home; and (4) the worker’s diagnosis of COVID-19 must be by a licensed physician and the diagnosis must be confirmed with further testing within 30 days of the diagnosis.

It will be up to the employer to establish that the worker did not contract COVID-19 at work by producing evidence that the injured worker did not satisfy one of the above four criteria or that the injured worker contracted the virus by another cause.  The employer must produce such evidence within 30 days of the filing of the claim by the worker.  After 30 days, an employer can produce evidence to rebut the presumption with evidence discovered after the 30-day period.

Overcoming the presumption will likely be difficult given the many variables in tracing how and where a worker has been exposed to the virus and obtaining evidence to disprove the worker’s claim.  Further, employers and insurers will likely challenge the executive order  due to the difficulty of proving that the employee contracted the coronavirus elsewhere.  How is the employer supposed to establish this?  Can the employer demand to know everyone the employee came into contact with outside of work and if those people were contagious?  Can the employer go even further and inquire where the employee has been? And on and on down the line  In short, there are a myriad of open issues and no guidance as of yet.

Are independent contractors eligible for workers compensation and unemployment compensation?

In California, workers compensation and unemployment compensation are typically only available to employees.  However, workers who believe they were misclassified under recently enacted AB-5, and applicable case law, may be eligible for both of these benefits.  To learn more about misclassification under AB-5, check out “The Fight For Clarity On Calif. Worker Classification Law.”

Additionally, independent contractors who have voluntarily contributed to unemployment insurance Elective Coverage and made the required contributions or had a past employer contribute to the unemployment insurance fund on their behalf in the past 18 months, may also qualify for unemployment compensation.  Further, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (“PUA”) program of the CARES Act gives states the unprecedented option of extending unemployment compensation to independent contractors and other workers who are ordinarily ineligible.  On April 28, 2020, California’s Employment Development Department (“EDD”) followed suit and expanded the availability of unemployment compensation via the federal PUA program to business owners, self-employed individuals, independent contractors, and gig economy workers.

What happens to workers who are receiving unemployment compensation and do not feel comfortable returning to work as businesses begin to reopen?

Workers who opt not to return to their positions when their employers reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic will likely not remain eligible for unemployment compensation.  Generally, individuals receiving regular unemployment compensation must act upon any referral to, and accept any offer of, suitable employment.  A request that a furloughed employee return to his or her job very likely constitutes an offer of suitable employment.

Specifically, the U.S. Department of Labor outlines the conditions an individual has to meet to refuse to return to work in order to remain eligible for PUA, as provided by the CARES Act. The list includes (i) a COVID-19 diagnosis, restrictions due to childcare availability, (ii) caring for an ill family member, or (iii) health “complications that render the individual objectively unable to perform his or her essential job functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation” as a result of having recovered from COVID-19. However, voluntarily deciding to not return to work out of a general concern about exposure to COVID-19 is likely tantamount to the employee having quit and will likely eliminate PUA eligibility.

The EDD similarly requires applicants to be “able, available, and actively seeking work” to collect unemployment benefits.  Accordingly, a worker’s decision to not return to work out of general health concerns related to COVID-19 would likely not satisfy this requirement. If, however, a worker declines to return given their underlying health conditions and thus an increased chance of significant illness if exposed to COVID-19, then the worker may be entitled to maintain unemployment compensation subject to the EDD’s discretion.

What if an employer offers a different position to a furloughed employee?

What if an employer offers a temporarily furloughed employee who is receiving unemployment compensation an otherwise similar role that provides, for example, hourly wages instead of the employee’s previous salaried compensation?  Will this be considered “suitable work,” and would the adjusted compensation create “good cause” to refuse this position”?  More generally, if the employer changes the terms of the employment – at what point does it constitute good cause to voluntarily quit and be eligible for unemployment compensation?

Whether an employee has good cause to not return to work or quit and be eligible for unemployment compensation is determined on a case-by-case basis and the burden of proving eligibility is on the claimant.  The EDD provides the following framework in determining whether good cause exists for the claimant to have voluntarily quit and remain eligible for unemployment compensation:

“Once the claimant’s reasons for leaving are determined, the interviewer must apply a three-part test to determine the presence of ‘good cause’: (1) Is the reason for leaving ‘real, substantial, and compelling’? (2) Would that reason cause a ‘reasonable person,’ genuinely desirous of working, to leave work under the same circumstances? (3) Did the claimant fail to attempt to preserve the employment relationship, thereby negating any ‘good cause’ he/she might have had in leaving?… ‘Compelling,’ in this sense merely means that the claimant’s reasons for quitting exerted so much pressure that it would have been unreasonable to expect him or her to remain with the employment. The ‘pressures’ exerted upon the claimant may be physical (as with health), moral, legal, domestic, economic, etc.”

A relatively insignificant reduction in salary due to a worker’s being reassigned to a different hourly role has been found to not constitute good cause to terminate voluntarily.  In one case, for example, a California court found that a reduction in the employee’s wages by roughly 7% did not, by itself, constitute good cause for voluntarily leaving employment.  However, the California Supreme Court has held that a 25% wage cut constituted a “substantial reduction in earnings” and that reduction was regarded as good cause for leaving employment.

Also uncertain is what happens in the situation where a salaried employee is offered an hourly position with no guarantee of actual work.  This would likely serve to support a claimant’s argument that good cause exists to reject the offer of employment and remain eligible for unemployment compensation. Moreover, in some situations, an employee may be deemed to be partially unemployed and thereby entitled to partial unemployment compensation.  Thus, hourly employees with reduced workloads may still receive partial unemployment compensation to supplement lost hours.  Each of these situations must be evaluated on a case by case basis.

What other rights do workers have if they believe their employer has not adequately addressed COVID-19 related safety concerns?

If a worker believes their employer has not adequately addressed COVID-19-related concerns, other limited remedies are available.  Per California’s Department of Industrial Relations, employees deemed non-essential who believe they were terminated or otherwise retaliated against for refusing to go to work while the stay-at-home order is in effect may file a retaliation claim with the Labor Commissioner’s Office.  Similarly, essential workers who feel their employer has not taken steps to ensure a safe work environment may also file a claim with the Labor Commissioner. These claims can lead to damages and penalties against the employer if it is found to have treated an employee adversely or fired an employee for refusing to work in (or complaining of) an unsafe work situation.

Under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, enforced through the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), employees can refuse to work if they reasonably believe they are in imminent danger, which means they must have a reasonable belief that there is a threat of death or serious physical harm likely to occur immediately or within a short period.  In the context of COVID-19, this will likely require a specific fear of infection that is based on fact—not just a generalized fear of contracting COVID-19 infection in the workplace, and that the employer cannot address the employee’s specific fear in a manner designed to ensure a safe working environment.

California’s counterpart to OSHA(“Cal/OSHA”), requires every employer to develop and implement a written safety and health program tailored to the specific workplace.  Among other things, recent Cal/OSHA guidance mandates that all California employers must determine if COVID-19 infection is a hazard in their workplace and if it is implements prevention measures and training.  Workers can file confidential complaints with OSHA or Cal/OSHA if they believe their employer is non-compliant, which could lead to on-site investigations, various civil penalties, and/or special orders requiring employers to make changes to their workplace.

Will businesses be shielded from COVID-19-related liability?

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated that any additional federal aid bill for state and local governments should make the money contingent on states providing liability protection to businesses and hospitals providing services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  Indeed, on May 12, Senator McConnell stated that he is overseeing the drafting of legislation that would “create a legal safe harbor for businesses, nonprofits, governments and workers and schools who are following public health guidelines to the best of their ability.”  However, he was clear that the bill would not provide absolute immunity, and that “there will be accountability for actual gross negligence and intentional misconduct.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also made several suggestions on this topic, including safe harbors from: privacy laws for employers who inquire about health status, age and disability bias laws if companies follow guidelines regarding at-risk employees, and simple negligence claims for COVID-19 exposure if businesses follow government health guidance. Manufacturers have also suggested (i) raising the legal standard for plaintiffs’ claims that a business failed to protect them from COVID-19, (ii) giving additional protections to businesses making new products to address the COVID-19 crisis, and (iii) shielding businesses from privacy suits if they reveal a worker’s COVID-19 diagnosis for safety reasons.  Currently, the extent to which any liability protections will be extended remains unclear.

What can businesses do to best protect against claims related to injuries from contracting COVID-19?

Businesses must consider the extent and manner in which they will reopen.  As a best practice, and in compliance with Cal/OSHA requirements, businesses should establish safety protocols, update employee and company handbooks to reflect the safety protocols (and provide handbooks to workers), and enforce compliance with the protocols. Employers can turn to the California Department of Public Health (“CDPH”) for guidance on how to reopen their businesses and provide a safe working environment for their workers.  While businesses can use effective alternative or innovative methods to provide a safe work environment, such as implementing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDPH guidelines are helpful as they are industry-specific and cover employee training, cleaning and disinfecting protocols, physical distancing guidelines, and a big-picture plan for creating and implementing the safety protocols.

Important and recommended practices include establishing policies and practices for maintaining a healthy work environment and social distancing.  Employers can maintain a healthy work environment by, for example, providing and mandating the use of personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, regularly sanitizing high-frequency touched surfaces, providing napkins and hand sanitizers to employees, limiting access to common areas such as break rooms and kitchens, increasing ventilation and outdoor air circulation, and requiring employees to report travel outside the state.

Social distancing means avoiding large gatherings and maintaining 6 feet distance from others when possible.  Social distancing protocols can include providing flexible worksites (e.g., telework) and work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), increasing physical space among employees and between employees and customers at the worksite, implementing flexible meeting and travel options (e.g., postpone non-essential meetings or events, use video conferencing, etc.), and providing alternative delivery methods, including curbside pick-up for products and utilizing phone, video, or web for services.

For more information on worker’s rights and business liability, visit our COVID-19 Preccelerator Resource Center
https://preccelerator.com/category/covid-19-resources/

Authors:
Jeffrey Gersh
Karine Akopchikyan
Garett Hill

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