Employment Law Attorneys
What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws

What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued the following critical guidance that lawyers and judges are using today and you should as also.  Please use the following link to the following information below reprinted in its entirety:

Technical Assistance Questions and Answers – Updated on May 5, 2020

  • All EEOC materials related to COVID-19 are collected at www.eeoc.gov/coronavirus.
  • The EEOC enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act (which include the requirement for reasonable accommodation and non-discrimination based on disability, and rules about employer medical examinations and inquiries), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, and sex, including pregnancy), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (which prohibits discrimination based on age, 40 or older), and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.
  • The EEO laws, including the ADA and Rehabilitation Act, continue to apply during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they do not interfere with or prevent employers from following the guidelines and suggestions made by the CDC or state/local public health authorities about steps employers should take regarding COVID-19. Employers should remember that guidance from public health authorities is likely to change as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. Therefore, employers should continue to follow the most current information on maintaining workplace safety.
  • The EEOC has provided guidance (a publication entitled Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans With Disabilities Act [PDF version]), consistent with these workplace protections and rules, that can help employers implement strategies to navigate the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace. This pandemic publication, which was written during the prior H1N1 outbreak, is still relevant today and identifies established ADA and Rehabilitation Act principles to answer questions frequently asked about the workplace during a pandemic. It has been updated as of March 19, 2020 to address examples and information regarding COVID-19; the new 2020 information appears in bold.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 to be an international pandemic. The EEOC pandemic publication includes a separate section that answers common employer questions about what to do after a pandemic has been declared. Applying these principles to the COVID-19 pandemic, the following may be useful:

A. Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Exams

A.1. How much information may an employer request from an employee who calls in sick, in order to protect the rest of its workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic? (3/17/20)

During a pandemic, ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the pandemic virus. For COVID-19, these include symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.

A.2. When screening employees entering the workplace during this time, may an employer only ask employees about the COVID-19 symptoms EEOC has identified as examples, or may it ask about any symptoms identified by public health authorities as associated with COVID-19? (4/9/20)

As public health authorities and doctors learn more about COVID-19, they may expand the list of associated symptoms. Employers should rely on the CDC, other public health authorities, and reputable medical sources for guidance on emerging symptoms associated with the disease. These sources may guide employers when choosing questions to ask employees to determine whether they would pose a direct threat to health in the workplace. For example, additional symptoms beyond fever or cough may include new loss of smell or taste as well as gastrointestinal problems, such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.

A.3. When may an ADA-covered employer take the body temperature of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic? (3/17/20)

Generally, measuring an employee’s body temperature is a medical examination. Because the CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 and issued attendant precautions, employers may measure employees’ body temperature. However, employers should be aware that some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever.

A.4. Does the ADA allow employers to require employees to stay home if they have symptoms of the COVID-19? (3/17/20)

Yes. The CDC states that employees who become ill with symptoms of COVID-19 should leave the workplace. The ADA does not interfere with employers following this advice.

A.5. When employees return to work, does the ADA allow employers to require a doctor’s note certifying fitness for duty? (3/17/20)

Yes. Such inquiries are permitted under the ADA either because they would not be disability-related or, if the pandemic were truly severe, they would be justified under the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries of employees. As a practical matter, however, doctors and other health care professionals may be too busy during and immediately after a pandemic outbreak to provide fitness-for-duty documentation. Therefore, new approaches may be necessary, such as reliance on local clinics to provide a form, a stamp, or an e-mail to certify that an individual does not have the pandemic virus.

A.6. May an employer administer a COVID-19 test (a test to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus) before permitting employees to enter the workplace? (4/23/20)

The ADA requires that any mandatory medical test of employees be “job related and consistent with business necessity.” Applying this standard to the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers may take steps to determine if employees entering the workplace have COVID-19 because an individual with the virus will pose a direct threat to the health of others. Therefore an employer may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus.

Consistent with the ADA standard, employers should ensure that the tests are accurate and reliable. For example, employers may review guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about what may or may not be considered safe and accurate testing, as well as guidance from CDC or other public health authorities, and check for updates. Employers may wish to consider the incidence of false-positives or false-negatives associated with a particular test. Finally, note that accurate testing only reveals if the virus is currently present; a negative test does not mean the employee will not acquire the virus later.

Based on guidance from medical and public health authorities, employers should still require – to the greatest extent possible – that employees observe infection control practices (such as social distancing, regular handwashing, and other measures) in the workplace to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

B. Confidentiality of Medical Information

B.1. May an employer store in existing medical files information it obtains related to COVID-19, including the results of taking an employee’s temperature or the employee’s self-identification as having this disease, or must the employer create a new medical file system solely for this information? (4/9/20)

The ADA requires that all medical information about a particular employee be stored separately from the employee’s personnel file, thus limiting access to this confidential information. An employer may store all medical information related to COVID-19 in existing medical files. This includes an employee’s statement that he has the disease or suspects he has the disease, or the employer’s notes or other documentation from questioning an employee about symptoms.

B.2. If an employer requires all employees to have a daily temperature check before entering the workplace, may the employer maintain a log of the results? (4/9/20)

Yes. The employer needs to maintain the confidentiality of this information.

B.3. May an employer disclose the name of an employee to a public health agency when it learns that the employee has COVID-19? (4/9/20)

Yes.

B.4. May a temporary staffing agency or a contractor that places an employee in an employer’s workplace notify the employer if it learns the employee has COVID-19? (4/9/20)

Yes. The staffing agency or contractor may notify the employer and disclose the name of the employee, because the employer may need to determine if this employee had contact with anyone in the workplace.

C. Hiring and Onboarding

C.1. If an employer is hiring, may it screen applicants for symptoms of COVID-19? (3/18/20)

Yes. An employer may screen job applicants for symptoms of COVID-19 after making a conditional job offer, as long as it does so for all entering employees in the same type of job. This ADA rule applies whether or not the applicant has a disability.

C.2. May an employer take an applicant’s temperature as part of a post-offer, pre-employment medical exam? (3/18/20)

Yes. Any medical exams are permitted after an employer has made a conditional offer of employment. However, employers should be aware that some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever.

C.3. May an employer delay the start date of an applicant who has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with it? (3/18/20)

Yes. According to current CDC guidance, an individual who has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with it should not be in the workplace.

C.4. May an employer withdraw a job offer when it needs the applicant to start immediately but the individual has COVID-19 or symptoms of it? (3/18/20)

Based on current CDC guidance, this individual cannot safely enter the workplace, and therefore the employer may withdraw the job offer.

C.5. May an employer postpone the start date or withdraw a job offer because the individual is 65 years old or pregnant, both of which place them at higher risk from COVID-19? (4/9/20)

No. The fact that the CDC has identified those who are 65 or older, or pregnant women, as being at greater risk does not justify unilaterally postponing the start date or withdrawing a job offer. However, an employer may choose to allow telework or to discuss with these individuals if they would like to postpone the start date.

D. Reasonable Accommodation

In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website for types of accommodations, www.askjan.org. JAN’s materials specific to COVID-19 are at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm.

D.1. If a job may only be performed at the workplace, are there reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities, absent undue hardshipthat could offer protection to an employee who, due to a preexisting disability, is at higher risk from COVID-19? (4/9/20)

There may be reasonable accommodations that could offer protection to an individual whose disability puts him at greater risk from COVID-19 and who therefore requests such actions to eliminate possible exposure. Even with the constraints imposed by a pandemic, some accommodations may meet an employee’s needs on a temporary basis without causing undue hardship on the employer.

Low-cost solutions achieved with materials already on hand or easily obtained may be effective. If not already implemented for all employees, accommodations for those who request reduced contact with others due to a disability may include changes to the work environment such as designating one-way aisles; using plexiglass, tables, or other barriers to ensure minimum distances between customers and coworkers whenever feasible per CDC guidance or other accommodations that reduce chances of exposure.

Flexibility by employers and employees is important in determining if some accommodation is possible in the circumstances. Temporary job restructuring of marginal job duties, temporary transfers to a different position, or modifying a work schedule or shift assignment may also permit an individual with a disability to perform safely the essential functions of the job while reducing exposure to others in the workplace or while commuting.

D.2. If an employee has a preexisting mental illness or disorder that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, may he now be entitled to a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship)? (4/9/20)

Although many people feel significant stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, employees with certain preexisting mental health conditions, for example, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, may have more difficulty handling the disruption to daily life that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.

As with any accommodation request, employers may: ask questions to determine whether the condition is a disability; discuss with the employee how the requested accommodation would assist him and enable him to keep working; explore alternative accommodations that may effectively meet his needs; and request medical documentation if needed.

D.3. In a workplace where all employees are required to telework during this time, should an employer postpone discussing a request from an employee with a disability for an accommodation that will not be needed until he returns to the workplace when mandatory telework ends? (4/9/20)

Not necessarily. An employer may give higher priority to discussing requests for reasonable accommodations that are needed while teleworking, but the employer may begin discussing this request now. The employer may be able to acquire all the information it needs to make a decision. If a reasonable accommodation is granted, the employer also may be able to make some arrangements for the accommodation in advance.

D.4. What if an employee was already receiving a reasonable accommodation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and now requests an additional or altered accommodation? (4/9/20)

An employee who was already receiving a reasonable accommodation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic may be entitled to an additional or altered accommodation, absent undue hardship. For example, an employee who is teleworking because of the pandemic may need a different type of accommodation than what he uses in the workplace. The employer may discuss with the employee whether the same or a different disability is the basis for this new request and why an additional or altered accommodation is needed.

D.5. During the pandemic, if an employee requests an accommodation for a medical condition either at home or in the workplace, may an employer still request information to determine if the condition is a disability? (4/17/20)

Yes, if it is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask questions or request medical documentation to determine whether the employee has a “disability” as defined by the ADA (a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or a history of a substantially limiting impairment).

D.6. During the pandemic, may an employer still engage in the interactive process and request information from an employee about why an accommodation is needed? (4/17/20)

Yes, if it is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask questions or request medical documentation to determine whether the employee’s disability necessitates an accommodation, either the one he requested or any other. Possible questions for the employee may include: (1) how the disability creates a limitation, (2) how the requested accommodation will effectively address the limitation, (3) whether another form of accommodation could effectively address the issue, and (4) how a proposed accommodation will enable the employee to continue performing the “essential functions” of his position (that is, the fundamental job duties).

D.7. If there is some urgency to providing an accommodation, or the employer has limited time available to discuss the request during the pandemic, may an employer provide a temporary accommodation? (4/17/20)

Yes. Given the pandemic, some employers may choose to forgo or shorten the exchange of information between an employer and employee known as the “interactive process” (discussed in D.5 and D.6., above) and grant the request. In addition, when government restrictions change, or are partially or fully lifted, the need for accommodations may also change. This may result in more requests for short-term accommodations. Employers may wish to adapt the interactive process – and devise end dates for the accommodation – to suit changing circumstances based on public health directives.

Whatever the reason for shortening or adapting the interactive process, an employer may also choose to place an end date on the accommodation (for example, either a specific date such as May 30, or when the employee returns to the workplace part- or full-time due to changes in government restrictions limiting the number of people who may congregate). Employers may also opt to provide a requested accommodation on an interim or trial basis, with an end date, while awaiting receipt of medical documentation. Choosing one of these alternatives may be particularly helpful where the requested accommodation would provide protection that an employee may need because of a pre-existing disability that puts her at greater risk during this pandemic. This could also apply to employees who have disabilities exacerbated by the pandemic.

Employees may request an extension that an employer must consider, particularly if current government restrictions are extended or new ones adopted.

D.8. May an employer ask employees now if they will need reasonable accommodations in the future when they are permitted to return to the workplace? (4/17/20)

Yes. Employers may ask employees with disabilities to request accommodations that they believe they may need when the workplace re-opens. Employers may begin the “interactive process” – the discussion between the employer and employee focused on whether the impairment is a disability and the reasons that an accommodation is needed.

D.9. Are the circumstances of the pandemic relevant to whether a requested accommodation can be denied because it poses an undue hardship? (4/17/20)

Yes. An employer does not have to provide a particular reasonable accommodation if it poses an “undue hardship,” which means “significant difficulty or expense.” In some instances, an accommodation that would not have posed an undue hardship prior to the pandemic may pose one now.

D.10. What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses “significant difficulty” during the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/17/20)

An employer may consider whether current circumstances create “significant difficulty” in acquiring or providing certain accommodations, considering the facts of the particular job and workplace. For example, it may be significantly more difficult in this pandemic to conduct a needs assessment or to acquire certain items, and delivery may be impacted, particularly for employees who may be teleworking. Or, it may be significantly more difficult to provide employees with temporary assignments, to remove marginal functions, or to readily hire temporary workers for specialized positions. If a particular accommodation poses an undue hardship, employers and employees should work together to determine if there may be an alternative that could be provided that does not pose such problems.

D.11. What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses “significant expense” during the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/17/20)

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most accommodations did not pose a significant expense when considered against an employer’s overall budget and resources (always considering the budget/resources of the entire entity and not just its components). But, the sudden loss of some or all of an employer’s income stream because of this pandemic is a relevant consideration. Also relevant is the amount of discretionary funds available at this time – when considering other expenses – and whether there is an expected date that current restrictions on an employer’s operations will be lifted (or new restrictions will be added or substituted). These considerations do not mean that an employer can reject any accommodation that costs money; an employer must weigh the cost of an accommodation against its current budget while taking into account constraints created by this pandemic. For example, even under current circumstances, there may be many no-cost or very low-cost accommodations.

D.12. Do the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act apply to applicants or employees who are classified as “critical infrastructure workers” or “essential critical workers” by the CDC? (4/23/20)

Yes. These CDC designations, or any other designations of certain employees, do not eliminate coverage under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act, or any other equal employment opportunity law. Therefore, employers receiving requests for reasonable accommodation under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act from employees falling in these categories of jobs must accept and process the requests as they would for any other employee. Whether the request is granted will depend on whether the worker is an individual with a disability, and whether there is a reasonable accommodation that can be provided absent undue hardship.

E. Pandemic-Related Harassment Due to National Origin, Race, or Other Protected Characteristics

E.1. What practical tools are available to employers to reduce and address workplace harassment that may arise as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/9/20)

Employers can help reduce the chance of harassment by explicitly communicating to the workforce that fear of the COVID-19 pandemic should not be misdirected against individuals because of a protected characteristic, including their national origin, race, or other prohibited bases.

Practical anti-harassment tools provided by the EEOC for small businesses can be found here:

  • Anti-harassment policy tips for small businesses
  • Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (includes detailed recommendations and tools to aid in designing effective anti-harassment policies; developing training curricula; implementing complaint, reporting, and investigation procedures; creating an organizational culture in which harassment is not tolerated):
    • report;
    • checklists for employers who want to reduce and address harassment in the workplace; and,
    • chart of risk factors that lead to harassment and appropriate responses.

E.2. Are there steps an employer should take to address possible harassment and discrimination against coworkers when it re-opens the workplace? (4/17/20)

Yes. An employer may remind all employees that it is against the federal EEO laws to harass or otherwise discriminate against coworkers based on race, national origin, color, sex, religion, age (40 or over), disability, or genetic information. It may be particularly helpful for employers to advise supervisors and managers of their roles in watching for, stopping, and reporting any harassment or other discrimination. An employer may also make clear that it will immediately review any allegations of harassment or discrimination and take appropriate action.

F. Furloughs and Layoffs

F.1. Under the EEOC’s laws, what waiver responsibilities apply when an employer is conducting layoffs? (4/9/20)

Special rules apply when an employer is offering employees severance packages in exchange for a general release of all discrimination claims against the employer. More information is available in EEOC’s technical assistance document on severance agreements.

G. Return to Work

G.1. As government stay-at-home orders and other restrictions are modified or lifted in your area, how will employers know what steps they can take consistent with the ADA to screen employees for COVID-19 when entering the workplace? (4/17/20)

The ADA permits employers to make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical exams if job-related and consistent with business necessity. Inquiries and reliable medical exams meet this standard if it is necessary to exclude employees with a medical condition that would pose a direct threat to health or safety.

Direct threat is to be determined based on the best available objective medical evidence. The guidance from CDC or other public health authorities is such evidence. Therefore, employers will be acting consistent with the ADA as long as any screening implemented is consistent with advice from the CDC and public health authorities for that type of workplace at that time.

For example, this may include continuing to take temperatures and asking questions about symptoms (or require self-reporting) of all those entering the workplace. Similarly, the CDC recently posted information on return by certain types of critical workers.

Employers should make sure not to engage in unlawful disparate treatment based on protected characteristics in decisions related to screening and exclusion.

G.2. An employer requires returning workers to wear personal protective gear and engage in infection control practices. Some employees ask for accommodations due to a need for modified protective gear. Must an employer grant these requests? (4/17/20)

An employer may require employees to wear protective gear (for example, masks and gloves) and observe infection control practices (for example, regular hand washing and social distancing protocols).

However, where an employee with a disability needs a related reasonable accommodation under the ADA (e.g., non-latex gloves, modified face masks for interpreters or others who communicate with an employee who uses lip reading, or gowns designed for individuals who use wheelchairs), or a religious accommodation under Title VII (such as modified equipment due to religious garb), the employer should discuss the request and provide the modification or an alternative if feasible and not an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business under the ADA or Title VII.

G.3. What does an employee need to do in order to request reasonable accommodation from her employer because she has one of the medical conditions that CDC says may put her at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19? (5/5/20)

An employee – or a third party, such as an employee’s doctor – must let the employer know that she needs a change for a reason related to a medical condition (here, the underlying condition).  Individuals may request accommodation in conversation or in writing.  While the employee (or third party) does not need to use the term “reasonable accommodation” or reference the ADA, she may do so.

The employee or her representative should communicate that she has a medical condition that necessitates a change to meet a medical need.  After receiving a request, the employer may ask questions or seek medical documentation to help decide if the individual has a disability and if there is a reasonable accommodation, barring undue hardship, that can be provided.

G.4. The CDC identifies a number of medical conditions that might place individuals at “higher risk for severe illness” if they get COVID-19.  An employer knows that an employee has one of these conditions and is concerned that his health will be jeopardized upon returning to the workplace, but the employee has not requested accommodation.  How does the ADA apply to this situation?

First, if the employee does not request a reasonable accommodation, the ADA does not mandate that the employer take action.

If the employer is concerned about the employee’s health being jeopardized upon returning to the workplace, the ADA does not allow the employer to exclude the employee – or take any other adverse action – solely because the employee has a disability that the CDC identifies as potentially placing him at “higher risk for severe illness” if he gets COVID-19.  Under the ADA, such action is not allowed unless the employee’s disability poses a “direct threat” to his health that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.

The ADA direct threat requirement is a high standard.  As an affirmative defense, direct threat requires an employer to show that the individual has a disability that poses a “significant risk of substantial harm” to his own health under 29 C.F.R. section 1630.2(r). A direct threat assessment cannot be based solely on the condition being on the CDC’s list; the determination must be an individualized assessment based on a reasonable medical judgment about this employee’s disability – not the disability in general – using the most current medical knowledge and/or on the best available objective evidence. The ADA regulation requires an employer to consider the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, the likelihood that the potential harm will occur, and the imminence of the potential harm.  Analysis of these factors will likely include considerations based on the severity of the pandemic in a particular area and the employee’s own health (for example, is the employee’s disability well-controlled), and his particular job duties.  A determination of direct threat also would include the likelihood that an individual will be exposed to the virus at the worksite.  Measures that an employer may be taking in general to protect all workers, such as mandatory social distancing, also would be relevant.

Even if an employer determines that an employee’s disability poses a direct threat to his own health, the employer still cannot exclude the employee from the workplace – or take any other adverse action – unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship).  The ADA regulations require an employer to consider whether there are reasonable accommodations that would eliminate or reduce the risk so that it would be safe for the employee to return to the workplace while still permitting performance of essential functions.  This can involve an interactive process with the employee.  If there are not accommodations that permit this, then an employer must consider accommodations such as telework, leave, or reassignment (perhaps to a different job in a place where it may be safer for the employee to work or that permits telework).  An employer may only bar an employee from the workplace if, after going through all these steps, the facts support the conclusion that the employee poses a significant risk of substantial harm to himself that cannot be reduced or eliminated by reasonable accommodation.

G.5. What are examples of accommodation that, absent undue hardship, may eliminate (or reduce to an acceptable level) a direct threat to self? (5/5/20)

Accommodations may include additional or enhanced protective gowns, masks, gloves, or other gear beyond what the employer may generally provide to employees returning to its workplace.  Accommodations also may include additional or enhanced protective measures, for example, erecting a barrier that provides separation between an employee with a disability and coworkers/the public or increasing the space between an employee with a disability and others.  Another possible reasonable accommodation may be elimination or substitution of particular “marginal” functions (less critical or incidental job duties as distinguished from the “essential” functions of a particular position).  In addition, accommodations may include temporary modification of work schedules (if that decreases contact with coworkers and/or the public when on duty or commuting) or moving the location of where one performs work (for example, moving a person to the end of a production line rather than in the middle of it if that provides more social distancing).

These are only a few ideas.  Identifying an effective accommodation depends, among other things, on an employee’s job duties and the design of the workspace.  An employer and employee should discuss possible ideas; the Job Accommodation Network (www.askjan.org) also may be able to assist in helping identify possible accommodations.  As with all discussions of reasonable accommodation during this pandemic, employers and employees are encouraged to be creative and flexible.

For further information please contact our Employment Lawyers at Carey & Associates P.C. at 203-255-4150 or email to info@capclaw.com.

 

Scared To Return To Work During Covid-19?

Scared To Return To Work During Covid-19?

Even after weeks of quarantining and social distancing, we continue to read about alarmingly high statistics related to Covid-19 illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you are on, we can all appreciate the double edge sword of getting back to our normal way of living and returning to our jobs versus the risks of further spread and outbreaks. Sure, going back to work and getting a paycheck is the goal in theory, there are likely many of you who are scared in practice. Will I be safe at work? What precautions will my employer take to minimize risk? Will I be subject to having my temperature taken every day? Will I have increased exposure to the virus on my commute? I managed to avoid contracting the virus all this time and I am now fearful, I will get it by being around others at my workplace? These are all legitimate concerns. But now consider all of the above concerns if you are someone who is already disabled, someone who has an autoimmune disease, someone who is pregnant, someone who is older, someone who has an anxiety disorder, someone who is battling cancer. What rights and protections do these compromised employees have when told they need to report to the office on Monday AM? And how to do we all address their important needs?

WHAT IF I AM HEALTHY, BUT JUST SCARED?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prevents employers from discriminating against employees with disabilities and continues to apply during the COVID-19 pandemic. The tricky part about establishing a case of disability discrimination is that the employee must be able to show that they were able to perform the essential functions of their jobs with or without reasonable accommodations. In other words, just because you have a disability, does not mean you are automatically guaranteed full protection from an adverse employment action as you still must be able to perform your essential job duties with reasonable accommodations made by your employer.

If you do not have any pre-existing disability, as defined by the ADA, and are simply scared to return to work or refuse to return to work, you can and might be terminated. After all, how can you perform your job functions if you are not willing or able to work?  However, if you can demonstrate that you have developed an anxiety disorder related to COVID-19, you should pursue a reasonable accommodation request with your employer. For example, perhaps you have a compromised family member living at home, or perhaps you were already someone who dealt with anxiety and now find that your anxiety has increased because of COVID -19, or perhaps you have some other emotional or psychological issue that renders you less equipped to manage the stress and fears associated with this pandemic. In these situations, it may be the case that you now have a severe anxiety disorder, a disability which would entitle you to reasonable accommodations from your employer such as being afforded the opportunity to work from home, or to work in an area of the office that is partitioned or secluded from others, or to work on off hours when the office is less crowded. The accommodation requested must be reasonable and must not present any undue financial harm or obstacles to the employer.

Each employee’s situation will need to be evaluated on a case by case basis. If you are able to perform the essential functions of your job from home and if the employer will not suffer any undue hardship from your working from home (or any other accommodation requested), you might be able to reap the benefit of a “disability” protection  under the ADA. Thus, if you are physically well, but are simply scared to return to work, there may be other factors at play that will entitle you to seek reasonable accommodations from your employer. Our employment attorneys will be able to help you navigate this, either in front of or behind the scenes.

IF I DO RETURN TO WORK, WHAT CAN I EXPECT?

While the ADA and state antidiscrimination laws continue to apply during the COVID-19 pandemic, these laws do not interfere with or prevent employers from following the guidelines and suggestions issued by the CDC or state and local public health authorities regarding COVID-19. In other words, there will be a great deal of “gray area” regarding what your employer can and cannot do related to COVID-19, but here is some of what you may expect to find upon your return to work.

According to the recent guidelines, employers may screen employees (take temperature) who enter the workplace, and should rely on the CDC for guidance on symptoms associated with the disease. Employers may also administer COVID-19 tests to detect the presence of the virus before permitting employees to enter the workplace, as long as the testing is job-related and consistent with business necessity i.e. health care workers. If an employer requires all employees to have a daily temperature check before entering the workplace, the employer may keep a log of the results as long as the medical information is stored in a manner that maintains confidentiality and is apart from their personnel file, in accordance with the ADA. Despite the requirement of confidentiality, the employer may and should inform the work population if there has been a recent possible exposure or diagnosis and should require that employee to leave the workplace until they are symptom free. Lastly, an employer may require employees to wear protective gear such as masks and gloves and enforce infection control practices such as hand washing and social distancing protocols.

WHAT IF I AM SCARED TO RETURN TO WORK BECAUSE I AM DISABLED, COMPROMISED OR OTHERWISE AT HIGHER RISK?

The CDC has identified certain conditions (for example, lung disease) that put certain people at a higher risk for severe illness if COVID-19 is contracted. Thus, such a condition would fit the scenario of someone with a disability, as defined by the ADA, requesting a reasonable accommodation either to work from home or for additional safety precautions or adjustments at work. Apart from the specific medical conditions set forth by the CDC, there might be additional ones that constitute a disability as defined by the ADA and which therefore would entitle an employee to similar protection. Accommodations for those who request reduced contact with others due to a disability may include working from home as well as changes to the work environment such as designating one-way aisles; using plexiglass, tables, or other barriers to ensure minimum distances between customers and coworkers whenever feasible per the CDC guidelines or other accommodations that reduce chances of exposure. In addition, if you are disabled or otherwise compromised or at risk, other accommodations considered might be temporary job restructuring of marginal job duties, temporary transfers to a different position, or modifying a work schedule or shift assignment to permit an individual with a disability to perform safely the essential functions of the job while reducing exposure to others in the workplace or while commuting.

What protections are provided to employees who are not CDC identified or ADA disabled, but may feel they are otherwise compromised because they are pregnant or older. While pregnancy and age are not “disabilities” and do not fall under the ADA (however, in some states like Connecticut pregnancy is considered a disability), employers must still handle such COVID-19 related matters pursuant to the protections afforded under the discrimination laws, such as Title VII. Thus, while an employer may not be legally required to accommodate a pregnant employee related to COVID-19 (or otherwise), an employer may not lay off, furlough or terminate a pregnant employee solely based on the CDC guidance that pregnant women are more likely to experience severe symptoms or that they should be monitored. The same holds true for employees over the age of 40 or for employees who come from a national origin with a higher rate of COVID-19 cases.

In addition, while a pregnant or older employee may not enjoy the protections of the ADA requirement to reasonably accommodate, there is nothing to prevent that employee from discussing this with the employer and requesting to work from home where it is safer. Further, if the employer is providing accommodations such as working from home or more flexible job hours to their more “desirable” employees on the basis of their younger age or their not being pregnant, that might constitute discrimination and should be addressed.

Lastly, while pregnant or older employees who are at higher risk might not fit under the ADA, all employers are governed by the CDC and OSHA. Employers need to be OSHA compliant always and now more than ever. So, if you believe that your employer is placing you at a greater risk, you may put them on notice of such and demand that they follow the workplace safety guidelines and laws. Most importantly, if you complain about any violations to these laws, it is unlawful for your employer to retaliate against you in any way for doing so. If you believe that is happening to you or might happen to you, we advise you call our employment lawyers immediately.

If you would like more information about this article, please contact Carey & Associates, P.C. and speak to one of our Employment Attorneys. Please call 203-255-4150 or email to info@capclaw.com.

 

 

The Covid-19 Catch-All: Why Your Recent Termination Might Have Been Unlawful

The Covid-19 Catch-All: Why Your Recent Termination Might Have Been Unlawful

A record 22 million people were laid off in one month since the coronavirus pandemic shut down large portions of the U.S. economy as of the week ending April 16, according to the Wall Street Journal. The estimated current employment rate is 13.5%.  But were all those layoffs really due to the corona virus or did employers use the pandemic as cover to get rid of employees for other reasons, maybe unlawful reasons.  This is the big question many unemployed Americans are now asking.  Please review the following frequently asked questions and see which applies to you.

FAQ:    Were you recently furloughed, laid off, demoted or terminated due to COVID, but your co-workers remain employed?

FAQ:    Is your Employer still operating and profitable, yet you were laid off or had your compensation reduced due to a business decision to reduce costs or eliminate your job position?

FAQ:    Were other younger employees retained, while you were furloughed, laid off, demoted or terminated?

FAQ:    Were you laid off or terminated and not offered any severance or insufficient severance?

FAQ:    Were your unemployment benefits interfered with?

FAQ:    If you were unable to continue to work because you were sick, because a family member was sick or because you have young children at home, were you permitted to take FMLA leave or were you instantly laid off or terminated?

FAQ:    Were you the only one furloughed, laid off, demoted or terminated or due to COVID, even though your Employer is calling it a “reduction in force”?

FAQ:    Do you think your Employer was looking for an excuse to get rid of you?

If you answered yes to any of the above, your seemingly straightforward COVID-based termination may be unlawful. Unfortunately, the majority of Employees in the U.S. are “at-will”. This means that employees are at the absolute and arbitrary whim of their employers and they may be demoted, terminated or otherwise treated adversely for any reason or no reason at all. The exception to the anything goes rule of an at-will employment arrangement is that employees may NOT be treated unlawfully.

If you have recently suffered an adverse change in the terms and conditions of your employment amidst the COVID-19 crisis, you may still have viable claims against your employer for unlawful or wrongful treatment. COVID-19 is not and should not be a catch-all excuse or defense for employers’ bad behavior and even a crisis of this magnitude does not relieve employers of their obligation to treat employees lawfully at all times. If something does not feel right to you about the circumstances of your change in employment, it is prudent to speak to an employment attorney and review the fact pattern surrounding your work situation. It is in your best interest to discern whether your employer may be using COVID-19 as a sham or cover for otherwise unlawful behavior.

Unlawful or wrongful acts that may entitle an employee to monetary damages for claims against their employer will usually fit in one of three scenarios. Employers actions can be shown to be unlawful if they:

              1) violate or fail to comply with any legislative mandate, act or

              statute;

              2) breach a valid contract or agreement; or

              3) discriminate, harass or retaliate based on a protected class trait.

COVID-19 does not give employers a green light to violate laws, ignore contracts or discriminate against employees, and a termination under any one of those scenarios might be a wrongful one.     

Scenario 1 – Statutory Violations:

Employers must abide by all existing laws and statutes, especially as they apply to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the employers’ obligation to stay abreast of and comply with all new mandates imposed and legislation enacted in response to COVID-19, including, but not limited to enhanced FMLA, the CARES Act and the expansion to the Unemployment Compensation Act. This is in addition the existing laws that have long protected employees from discrimination and retaliation such as Pregnancy, Sex Harassment, Sexual Stereotype, Disability, Age, Whistle Blowing and Family Medical Leave, to name just a few. Thus, any analysis of whether your termination was lawful and proper should begin with a review of the facts relative to the controlling law and any revisions and updates to those laws. If you identify any facts in the events leading up to your termination that just do not seem right, you may have uncovered the hidden basis for your termination.  For example, you got a good review last fall and received a bonus in January, but in March you were terminated without explanation.  The small window between the January bonus and March termination should be closely examined for any facts supporting bogus performance issues, favorable treatment given to other employees and not you and replacement by coworker who is substantially younger and lesser qualified.  The examples are endless, but you get the gist. See further discussion below.

Scenario 2 – Breach of Contract:

Even an at-will employment arrangement must be considered in light of any existing employment contracts or agreements between the employer and employee. In addition to or in the absence of a formal written employment contract, Courts may look to such documents as offer letters, on-boarding communications, employee handbooks, published severance plans and emails in order to demonstrate the existence of any enforceable covenants between the parties that may speak to such topics as causes for termination, compensation, bonus, healthcare, long term incentive compensation and severance. Thus, where a valid contract can be established as to any of your employment terms, your employer is bound by those terms and any deviation may be an unlawful breach for which you might be able to seek and recover damages. So, if you have been terminated or otherwise caused to separate from your employer, even if you are at-will and even amidst the COVID-19 crisis, it is imperative that you review all of your documents in order to discern that you are being treated lawfully according to the terms that were agreed upon and promised to you.

Scenario 3 (THIS IS THE BIGGIE) – Discrimination Claims:

Even if you are an at-will employee who was let go as a result of COVID-19, you may still have a claim for wrongful termination against your employer if their decision to let you go was at all based on discriminatory motives. Discrimination is unlawful and where an adverse act is taken against you because of such protected traits as your age, gender, pregnancy, race or national origin, disability, perceived disability, associational disability or sexual orientation, you may have legal claims against your Employer.

In the absence of direct evidence of discrimination or the smoking gun as we call it, discrimination can be shown if you are a member of the protected class and you were treated adversely (demoted, furloughed, laid off or terminated) under circumstances which give rise to an inference of discrimination, i.e. circumstances that show discrimination was the substantial motivating reason for the adverse act taken against you. The way an employer can defend itself against such a claim and rebut that inference is to show that there was a “legitimate” lawful reason for the termination, such as performance issues and other cause such as a business decision or reduction in force.

Certainly, you can all see where this is heading. COVID-19 and the related financial fallout provides your employer with the legitimate business reason it needs to “lawfully” terminate you.  However, this cannot be accepted at face value. In fact, if you are able to show that the supposed legitimate reason relied on by employer was a sham or cover for discriminatory motives, you may prevail on your claims against them in a severance negotiation. There are surely many situations where an employer, especially during these challenging economic times, needs to make a tough business decision to lay off employees or institute a reduction of force, and where their decision to do so is legitimate and truthful.

Employer May Have Used Covid-19 As An Excuse to Fire You

However, there are also many instances where certain employees are selected within the context of a business decisions, based on discriminatory motives. For example, the company makes the “business decision” to lay off only the older employees, or only the female employees or only the pregnant employees. In addition, there might not even be any explicit or formal business decision to reduce costs or a effectuate a reduction in force, but your employer may still feel safe engaging in discriminatory behavior knowing or hoping that any terminations taking place now will be viewed as a necessary and legitimate, due to the Covid-19 business climate. Again, we cannot allow employers to use this catch-all defense to what maybe culpable and unacceptable discriminatory behavior.  If you see something, say something to an employment attorney.

There is no doubt that both employers and employees are presently finding themselves in the most difficult and tenuous circumstances. However, employers, in response to COVID-19, seemingly have absolute power and new founded legitimacy to make discriminatorily targeted employment decisions against their at-will employees, under the guise of a business decision. And this is very concerning and unlawful. If you are in a protected class because you are over the age of 40 or fall into any of the other class of protected traits discussed herein, and have seen a change to your employment that you do not believe was made as the result of a good faith business decision, cost reduction, reduction in force in response to COVID-19, or other legitimate basis, we encourage you to speak to an employment attorney immediately. You may be entitled to reinstatement, severance or increased severance or settlement dollars relative to your discrimination claims for wrongful termination or other possible improper acts by your employer.

Carey & Associates, P.C. is currently providing complimentary consultations for potential new clients who are experiencing any employment related issues or believe they might have possible employment claims, as a result of the COVID -19 pandemic. Feel free to contact our office if you need help with that or any of your employment matters.

Protecting Your Job During Coronavirus: Two Things Employees Should Look Out For

Protecting Your Job During Coronavirus: Two Things Employees Should Look Out For

By Liz Swedock

COVID-19 is interrupting everyone’s lives these days, worldwide, and for many of us it is negatively impacting our jobs.  Even while we are trying to achieve the work-from-home revolution, an unprecedented number of workers are experiencing frightening job stressors, including drastically reduced workload, changes in job responsibilities, dropped job responsibilities, and job loss.  While not every negative impact can be fixed, there are a few legal protections that all workers should be aware of.

  1. Is your job being impacted in a way that is unethical, or possibly illegal?

The sad reality is that the global recession is going to quickly motivate employers to start firing people.  Businesses are panicked right now about their financial bottom line, and those salaries for all the people who aren’t in the office are looking daunting.  While it may be legal for employers to lay people off due to purely financial concerns, all employees should be their own watchdog for any layoffs, terminations, demotions, or changes in responsibilities that appear to be unfairly – or unequally – happening.

What is unfair or unequal?  Often the answer is discrimination.  These days most people are aware of the protected classes of employees.  They include older individuals (over 40), disabled individuals (physical or mental), gender, race, national origin, religion, and others.  It is illegal for employers to single out any of these classes of individuals for negative treatment.

It’s often not obvious if an employee is being illegally discriminated against, which is why workers should arm themselves with what to look for.  Sometimes illegal mistreatment is blatant, such as bullying and inappropriate remarks.  But it can also be done through much more subtle means, like removal of responsibilities, being taken off projects or sidelined, exclusion from important meetings, or old-fashioned favoritism.

We all know what’s coming.  As the economy is disrupted, companies are going to be forced to start eliminating employees.  So, keep your eyes and ears open and watch out for anything that seems wrong.  Did an entire project get cancelled or an entire team laid off?  That kind of activity might be perfectly legal.  However, does it seem like only the older employees or those with medical conditions are suffering the consequences?  Has your multi-gendered and multi-national team suddenly become, well, a lot less diverse? These types of selective actions could be crossing a line into illegal territory.

  1. Are you being denied rights that you are entitled to, particularly medical leave or accommodations?

The headlines are warning us that a huge percentage of the population should expect to catch COVID-19, a/k/a Coronavirus.  This means that an even larger number of people can expect to be impacted by the virus, including if family members get sick.

If you or an immediate family member gets sick, you may be entitled to take medical leave while your job is protected – meaning, you cannot be demoted or fired.  Federally, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees employees up to 12 weeks of leave per year if you’ve been an employee for at least one year and worked a minimum of 1,250 hours over the prior year.  FMLA leave is unpaid, which means your employer is not required to pay you while you are on leave, but is required to hold your job for you until you return.  Any negative impact on your job, such as by giving your work away or demoting you because you took leave, is illegal.

In Connecticut, this protection is expanded to 16 weeks of leave for any employee who works 1,000 hours during the prior year.  In New York, since 2018, employees may be entitled to up to 10 weeks of paid family leave, up to 60% of their average weekly pay.  This is one of the strongest protections in the country.

Can you take FMLA leave any time you or a family member gets sick?  For a simple illness, such as a cold or the flu, the answer is usually no.  However, you are entitled to leave for any “serious health condition,” which is defined as “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition” which involves  “inpatient care” or “continuing treatment by a health care provider.”  Sound confusing?  It is.  Put quite simply, it’s not a black-and-white rule about when legal protections kick in for any individual medical situation.  The bottom line is that if you, or a family member, has a medical problem that requires repeated, or ongoing, medical treatment, you probably qualify for protected leave.

It’s also important to know that individuals can take this medical leave in pieces, or “chunks.”  This is called “intermittent leave.”  What this means is that if you qualify for leave, but you can work sometimes, you can still be eligible for the protections provided under these laws, most importantly that you cannot be fired or demoted while utilizing your leave.  This is extremely important for people who have ongoing medical conditions that require short periods of treatment.

Lastly, every employee with a medical issue should understand how the law defines “disability” and what an “accommodation” is.  Legally speaking, disabilities can be temporary! You can be legally disabled if you have a medical condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” and “major life activities” includes working.  Of course, this means that many people who qualify for FMLA medical leave will also qualify under the law as disabled.

So, what protections do you have if you are legally disabled?  A complete answer here would require far more space and time than I’m tackling in this article.  However, the short answer is that your employer is required to cooperate with you so that you can do your job.  In legal terms, this is called an “accommodation.”  If you can do your job with a reasonable accommodation, then it is illegal for your employer to fire you, demote you, or do anything else to hurt your employment.

Just like with medical leave, it’s different for each person.  However, an example how these legal systems work might be something like this – Person A contracts Coronavirus.  Unfortunately, person A has the aggressive symptoms of the virus and needs to be hospitalized for a week, and then required to quarantine at home for a few more weeks.  While they are hospitalized, Person A would be entitled to FMLA (and state) leave while they are in the hospital, and, most likely, while they have to self-quarantine at home.  At the same time, Person A would most likely also qualified as disabled.  This means Person A would have the following protections: the employer has to hold Person A’s job while person A is out, and, while Person A is recovering, the employer is required to offer Person A accommodations so that Person A can do Person A’s job.  In other words, Person A cannot be fired, and must be given options to enable Person A to perform the job.

The takeaway here is to know your rights and stand up for yourself! Don’t expect your HR department to know the law or give you good advice.  Even the most well intentioned employers or human resources people often don’t know how this process works, or what they are legally required to provide to you.  You need to speak to an employment attorney to get the right advice, especially now during this Coronavirus pandemic.

If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact one of our employment attorneys at Carey & Associates, P.C. at 203-255-4150 or by email at info@capclaw.com.

Uncovering Your Bias About People Infected By the Coronavirus

Uncovering Your Bias About People Infected By the Coronavirus

By Mark Carey

You know the man in the supermarket you saw today as you hurried for the last roll of TP… yes the one with the facemask and plastic gloves. Was he wearing the protective essentials because he was sick or because he was trying not to get the Coronavirus? Were you afraid to go near him?  Should he wear a symbol (red or green) indicating he was infected or not?

The internal reaction you had was most likely a flight and fight response you could not suppress.  But did you have enough information about this masked shopper to really render a rational conclusion that it was safe to pass? Probably not.  He could have been shopping for an elderly couple, sitting in their car in front of the store, performing a good samaritan deed and wore the protective gear to ensure he was not infecting the food he was gathering.  Would that make you feel different about this fellow?

What if the masked shopper lived with a family of five, all of whom were now contagious with the Coronavirus and the Dad, the only noninfected family member, was wearing the protective gear 24/7 in order to care for his family. Someone must still shop for food when nearly the entire family becomes ill. Would this make you feel different about him?

As we all move through these very uncertain and anxiety filled times, I ask you all to hold your judgments about each other until you can obtain more information, and then don’t judge.  Maybe exchange a few words and see if the person is ok, instead of ignoring them. Or just express a warm “hello” or “good morning”. Everyone has a story or will have a story about how they are coping with this national tragedy, including the New Rochelle Man.  We all will need more compassion and less bias in order to get through this.

According to a recently released Centers of Disease Control projection modeling, 160-214 million Americans are expected to contract the Coronavirus; you and I stand a good chance to become inflicted.  When you do, you will immediately wonder how people will judge you and whether you were careless in your pre-infection days, going to work or a party with a cough or jumped on an airplane.  The point is, no one knew they had the infection before it was too late, as no knows what the early stages of the Coronavirus feel like.

The Coronavirus does not discriminate based on sex, race, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual stereotype, age or political ideology.  We are now ALL on the same team.  Show a smile to a passerby, saw hello instead of looking down or away, volunteer to buy groceries or cook for the elderly, call your parents more often.  Take care of the home team, because we ALL need you right now. Finally, do not forgot what expressing or receiving compassion feels like when this is all over, we need to continue to take care of our home team no matter our differences.  Give a Shaka today.

If you need immediate assistance, please email our Employee Coronavirus Hotline and we will attempt respond to your questions.  Mark Carey can be reached at 203-255-4150 or mcarey@capclaw.com.

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Your Job and the Coronavirus: 5 Things To Know and Protect Yourself

Your Job and the Coronavirus: 5 Things To Know and Protect Yourself

The issue is not if the Coronavirus will impact your employment but when it will.  If you contract the Coronavirus or you are quarantined due to a family member having the illness, you need to know the following important pieces of information to protect yourself.

1. Having the Coronavirus is a Disability and You Are Entitled to Protections

If you are diagnosed with the Coronavirus, you will have a physical disability pursuant to state and federal law.  Generally, any impairment of your major life functions is considered a disability and it appears that the Coronavirus is so severe it can become fatal in a short period of time.  An employer who discriminates against an employee who contracts the Coronavirus may be liable under disability laws.  Also, you should request a reasonable accommodation for a disability leave of absence to quarantine yourself and seek medical assistance. Your employer has an obligation to discuss your accommodation, albeit after they order you not to come to the office until you recover.

State and federal disability laws also protect employees who are “regarded as” having the Coronavirus but have not been diagnosed yet or do not even have the virus.  The medical community has only indicated the early signs of the Coronavirus mimic flu symptoms and you will not know which illness you have until you have been tested.  The idea here is that disability laws seek to address discriminatory biases held by employers who speculate a person has a disability but are unsure about the truth of the employee’s medical situation.

Finally, the disability laws also protect employees “associated with” individual family members who have the Coronavirus.  If you are fired out of fear that your family member infected you, you are protected against discrimination and unlawful termination, even though you never contracted the illness.

2.  You May Have Rights Pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act

If you contract the Coronavirus, and you have worked a significant number of hours in the past year, you may be entitled to take time off, paid in some states like New York and soon Connecticut.  You will be entitled to 12 weeks or more and your job will be protected. However, you have to come back to work before the expiration of the FMLA leave or your employer will terminate you.   This leave of absence overlaps with the disability accommodation request above.  A good an employment lawyer will know how to navigate this for you.

3.   You May Be Entitled to Short Term and Long Term Disability Benefits

You may also be entitled to paid time off under your employer’s short term and long term disability benefits plan. Again, this disability leave of absence overlaps with the disability and FMLA leaves of absence.  In order to qualify for benefits, you need to apply for them through your Human Resources Department and demonstrate, via supporting medical documentation, you are totally disabled.  Given the severity of the Coronavirus, you will certainly qualify as having a total disability.  The grey area will be in those cases where the symptoms of the virus are not as severe and you recover within a matter of weeks.  If you recover, and hopefully you do, the STD and LTD benefits will only be paid for the period of your disability.  You would need to return to work after your recovery, but an employment lawyer will guide you through this process.

4.  You May Be Entitled to Workers Compensation

If and only if you contract the Coronavirus while at work, can you file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits.  This type of claim takes longer to collect from the insurer, but more importantly, it may bar you from recovery under other state laws but not federal laws.  Federal laws will always preempt state law claims.

5.  You May Be Entitled To Severance If You Are Terminated

If you are terminated for contracting the Coronavirus, regarded as having the virus or associated with a family member who has it, you should consider hiring an employment attorney to attempt to negotiate a severance package with your employer.  Your employer may already have a severance plan which pays out benefits, i.e. weeks of salary for years of service, and you will need to sign a waiver and release of claims, aka settlement agreement.  An employer will want to avoid any connection to accusations that it fired an employee for having the Coronavirus; it just does not seem fair and the right thing to do.

If you would like more information about this topic and need to speak to an employment attorney, please contact Mark Carey at info@capclaw.com or call Carey & Associates, P.C. at 203-255-4150.

 

 

 

Several Great Reasons to Get Rid of the Employment At-Will Rule

Several Great Reasons to Get Rid of the Employment At-Will Rule

By Mark Carey

What do you mean I can be fired for any reason or no reason at all? Who made up this rule? Why do I have to follow the employment at-will doctrine?  Well, you don’t and there are several reasons companies and employees should shift to a modified approach that satisfies the expectations of both the employer and the employee.

I can honestly say that over the past twenty-three years handling employment law cases for both executives and employees, my clients are really confused and bewildered by the employment at-will rule and the significant financial impact it creates when employers decide to let them go.  Many clients always state they understand the basic rule that they can be fired at any time and they can leave at any time.  But beyond that they know absolutely nothing about why the rule came into being or more importantly how they can negotiate around it.  When a termination occurs the adverse impact is clear, the uncertainty of the break in career trajectory and financial resources.

At the executive level, I routinely negotiate employment contracts that provide for termination “for cause” and “termination for good reason” by the executive.  This is standard in the industry at the executive level. However, I do confront the hybrid cases, where the employer “shoves” in the provision identified as “termination for any reason”. Well, that sounds like the employment at-will rule doesn’t it, because it is.  Enter the LeBron James Rule. (I made up this rule).  When negotiating employment contracts, employees needs to identify their leverage factor; it is what makes the employer throw money or equity in order to induce the hire.  LeBron James can write his own ticket to work wherever he finds the highest bidder, and he can demand the termination for cause and good reason provision with a severance payout.  Find your leverage and do not be shy about asserting it.

Well you might say not everyone is as fortunate as LeBron. I disagree and this is what has bugged me for many years.  We all too often knee jerk react and accept this stupid and ill-conceived rule that your employment is as good as the last minute or hour you just worked. Some say, just be grateful you have your job etc.  Give me a break!  There is a new way to handle this.

I propose getting rid of the employment at-will rule and replacing it with the modified form we see in executive employment contracts. Specifically, employees can be fired for cause or terminated by the employee for good reason. If the good reason event occurs, then the employer pays a severance amount to take care of some of the financial issues related to your transition to new employment.  If you land a job, your severance stops, as this is fair in an economic theory way of thinking.  “Termination for cause” means you violated the law and company policies.  “Termination for good reason” means the employer materially changed your title, salary, reporting structure, location of your office etc.

Now here are several positive effects of eliminating the employment at-will rule based on my research into this issue.

  1. Management vs. Everybody: Eliminating the employment at-will rule will get rid of the large divide between management and employees. Literally, this is the trust divide.  If you scare employees into believing they can be fired any time, management is not creating a loyal and trusting environment that spurs innovation and creativity which will push the company forward in profound economic ways.  Employers want employees to be focused on their work, but this rule is utterly distracting and frankly non-motivating. The rule erodes any semblance of entrepreneurial creativity among the team.  Employers need to seriously rethink this one.
  2. HR vs. Everybody: Honestly, did you really believe the Human Resources Department was there to help you. I make it my mission to point this out to every client I have. They (HR) have a duty of loyalty to the employer and have absolutely no interest in doing what’s right for you. By eliminating the employment at-will rule, employees will closer align themselves with HR and HR will do a better job of “caring” for the very employees that make up the company; without employees you have no company. Where did all those employers go astray?
  3. Eliminating Fiefdoms: Does your boss have their favorites? Do they hire from the last place of employment? Are there any “brown-nosers” in the team who believe the only way to the top is to “work it” what ever that means to you. It’s childish and it’s irritating to say the least.  You know what I am referring to.  Why do other employees do this and why do supervisors encourage it?  Eliminating the employment at-will rule will breed meritocracy, but not the type Bridgewater Associates thinks they are creating.  Employees will begin to feel compassion for their coworkers and work more closely as a team or family, instead of putting a knife in their back at work. Employees will work with management for the company common good; all will prosper together not just the few.
  4. Reducing Discrimination: If you create trust, honesty, transparency and vulnerability, then you create lasting relationships where employees want to stay and work.  Employment discrimination bias arises from many reasons, but my theory is that if you get rid of the employment at-will rule you will gut the walls that employees build in their work environments with the sole goal of getting ahead.  Think about it. If you say something or do something negative about another person to make yourself look better in the eyes of your employer, you will do it to get ahead.  That negative comment or idea could be motivated based on gender, age, race, religion or manipulation like seeking sexual favors in exchange for career advancement.  We need a sea change to course correct our current direction.  The status quo just doesn’t work anymore; although it may work for employment attorneys like myself as we are very busy policing this garbage.  If you see something, say something. Have the courage to speak out, you will be protected.

Finally, here is my shout out to older employees. If you are an older employee “we honor your wisdom and experience, you are worth every penny we pay you”.  Employees who are in their fifties and even sixties are well paid because they have many years of experience to offer, more than someone twenty years their younger.  I say we should keep them on board and ignore the bottom-line cost issues and focus on their economic impact these older wiser employees can create for the company.  Management must stop terminating the baby boomers because the economic argument that fosters this decision making is not financially sound and never was to begin with.  It’s like a bad drug addiction.  Remember, wisdom still is a virtue for a reason.

When will this change occur? When management realizes they can make greater revenue multiples by providing better job security.  They will have to stop listening to management side defense employment counsel who banter incessantly to maintain the employment at-will rule for every client. The world isn’t flat, or at least until someone very smart said it wasn’t.  Same goes here, management should adopt this new rule and maybe just maybe they will convince themselves that #employees matter.

If you want more information about employment law issues, please feel free to contact Mark Carey, Carey & Associates, P.C., at info@capclaw.com or call the office at 203-984-5536.

What’s Your Job Strategy In The Face of the New Recession?

What’s Your Job Strategy In The Face of the New Recession?

The next recession is now here, depending on the of source of information or this source.  The Federal Reserve is reversing interest rate hikes to soften the economic expansion and the unemployment rate is at a 50 year low.  We are well past the cyclical ten year timeframe as recessions go.  What is your strategy to preserve your job in the face of this new recession? What is your strategy if and when you are laid off?

You are probably thinking, “what strategy?” You get up, go to work and hope you can continue to remain an at-will employees until the end of the new pay period, under the presumption you have no control over your job. Better yet, you planned on retiring from your company in the distant future.  On the other end of the spectrum, there are employees who think their longevity with their employers will insulate them from any headcount reductions during recessions.  Both viewpoints are wrong and employees can control their employment outcomes during a recession.

5 Strategies To Save Your Job During a Recession

The following strategies are followed by our clients when they see the “writing on the wall” by their managers. Although some clients never see the messaging from their employer, we do.  Depending on how soon you pick up all the clues determines which strategy to pursue.  Hint, the sooner you speak with an employment attorney the better.  If we are engaged earlier in the process, we can evaluate and develop an aggressive strategy that will force the employer to maintain your employment and/or pay a larger severance package with more favorable terms.

  1. Plan Ahead and Gather Intelligence From Managers and Coworkers

Are you proactive about your employment or do you follow the wait and see approach?  Becoming proactive with your employer means obtaining objective feedback from your managers and coworkers.  No, I am not referring to the annual performance review or 360 reviews.  A proactive employee will develop an initial assessment of his or her own performance by quietly engaging in one on one discussions with managers and coworkers about their working relationship and performance. You will need to keep detailed notes of these conversations in order to track the information over time and over various contexts.   Forget about the formalities of the annual review or the vague performance metrics employers follows.  I am talking about all the intel you can gather by having a straight up ever day conversation with your manager and coworkers.  Examine the body cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice and the context of conversations in relation to those cues.  Observe more instead of being reactionary or defensive.  The better you are at this task, the more intelligence you will pick up, as your manager or coworker will not know you are gathering information. Once you collected this information, you will need to strategize how to position yourself as a thought leader, influencer, leader and over-all get the job done kind of employee.  Lead by example and always remain the consummate professional during all interactions with your employer and coworkers.

Ironically, your employer is collecting similar information about you and your coworkers. In a recent article from SHRM, “A good way to begin is by collecting information about the organization’s workforce that can be used for long-range planning. ‘[HR] should be looking at the data, knowing who is where in their careers, who is where in their teams’… ‘Are people ready to move into the next position? Are they happy where they are?’ Review job descriptions and tasks and determine whether responsibility for those tasks can be more evenly distributed throughout the team. By understanding the big picture, HR leaders can advise business leaders on how to ready the workforce for future changes without resorting to morale-damaging layoffs.”

  1. File Internal Complaints of Discrimination to Maintain Your Job

Once we determine you are may be the victim of employment discrimination or have other employment claims, we will advise you about bringing these claims to your employers attention without escalating to an external governmental agency.  The main idea here is to engage in a protective activity to force your employer to “back the heck off” and cause them to reevaluate your potential termination.  Our longest standing record to keep an employee employed using this method is two years (my opposing counsel in that case was not happy, but I was not there to please him).

If necessary, you may need to file your discrimination claims with governmental agencies in order to preserve your legal rights.  The same antiretaliation laws apply and employers will back off for a limited period of time in order to avoid you asserting an easy to prove retaliation claim.

  1. Dealing With Performance Improvement Plans (PIPS)

Combatting those inaccurate, one-sided and self-serving performance improvement plans. We wrote about this issue in Are Performance Improvement Plans (PIPS) Illegal?  A PIP is a clear indicator you will be terminated and you will need to engage an employment attorney ASAP!

  1. Severance Negotiation Based Years of Service

This strategy is relatively straight forward.  If you are slated for termination in a layoff, your employer may have a severance plan governed by ERISA, a federal statute that governs these plans.  Essentially, an ERISA severance plan spells out the amount you will be paid a salary continuation based on the number of years you worked for the company.  There is one catch, you will need to sign a waiver and release of all your legal claims against the employer in order to receive the payout.  You will also need an employment attorney to review the settlement agreement to insert favorable terms or get rid of unfriendly terms like noncompetition agreements.  Make sure when speaking with an employment attorney that he or she is an ERISA attorney, as there is a difference.  Our ERISA attorneys know how the statute works and will even point out in certain cases that you can create an ERISA plan based on one employee, “you”, even though the employer never created an ERISA plan.  Engage us to learn more.

  1. Getting Rid of That Noncompete Agreement on the Way Out

Great, you will be getting terminated but your employer stuck you with a noncompete, either at the start of your job or as part of the severance agreement. What do you do?  The noncompete does not benefit you at all, only your employer.  Now you have to navigate away from jobs you would normally apply for given your years in the same industry.  Is this fair? No.  Someone has to pay the utilities, mortgage and household expenses, but do not count on your employer to do you a favor. I have long taken a stand against these selfish one sided agreements and forced employers to rescind them or obtain an order from the court to void them.  We can help you remove your noncompete agreement with your employer and make you a free agent in the job market.  We will challenge the validity of the agreement with the employer directly and if the employer does not back down, we will take them to court through what is called a declaratory judgment action. Essentially, we ask courts to void the agreement due to lack of intention by the employee to enter into the agreement, aka a lack of consideration.

If you need more help planning for your future employment issues, please contact an employment attorney in our office. Employment law is all we do.

A Few Very Good Reasons Why You Can’t Trust Your Employer

A Few Very Good Reasons Why You Can’t Trust Your Employer

We all build relationships based on trust.  Some relationships require more trust than others. For example, marriage, medical professionals and hiring lawyers.  We all take the time to explore whether these relationships are the right fit for us.  We even memorialize these important, sometimes life-changing, relationships with contractual agreements.  But when it comes to the relationship with your employer, you might as well start hand feeding piranhas.

Meet Your Antagonist: Your Employer

An antagonist is someone who actively opposes or is hostile to another; an adversary.  Does this describe your current or former employer? In my role as the employment attorney, I do not hear very many people say they trust their employers. In fact, the opposite is true.  According to a Harvard Business Review article, “In both your personal life and your work life, you’re bound to encounter people who take advantage of you, and these painful experiences can make you cynical.”
You have several reasons to be cynical about your employment relationship.  Your employer is not interested in whether you are happy at work, fulfilled in your career aspirations, concerned about your personal responsibilities at work or anything remotely realistic to a nurturing relationship.  In fact many employees have a low level of trust in their employers.  The 2016 Trust Barometer report from Edelman revealed that a third of employees do not trust their employers. Employees reported a lack of engagement, short term profit seeking, lack of belief in the company mission, poor product quality, unethical behavior, bad corporate reputation, invisible CEOs and lack of corporate communication to employees.

At-will Employment is Bad for You

When you are employed at-will, as most of you are, you might as well be on a first date for the next several years.  You would think that after knowing your employer for three or more years, you’d just settle down and get engaged to be married. However this is not so.  Unless you have a coveted and rare employment contract with a “for cause” termination provision, your employer can bounce you with little or no notice.  Many of you have felt this scorned feeling from prior jobs.  So where is the trust in the at-will workplace if you can never predict your future with a reasonable certainty on a day-to-day basis? There is none.  Ouch!
Somehow, we have just grown accustomed to this dysfunctional at-will relationship and let employers manipulate us with unenforced corporate codes of conduct, lofty corporate double speak and fear.

Management by Fear Does Not Create Trust

The most common corporate management practice today is to maintain a consistent level of passive-aggressive practices which propagate employee fear and insecurity. From my vantage point, I see a persistent pattern by employers accusing employees of subjective performance issues while their objective performance criteria are “meets” or “exceeds expectation”.  Employers use performance management techniques such as performance improvement plans and coaching to force out undesirable employees.  No one ever remains long after being managed this way. I also see cases of overt ruthless conduct, where a supervisor discriminates against pregnant employees as having “baby brain.” Saying things like, “I don’t want another woman working on the desk” or “If you’re being honest with yourself, do you really think you could do this job?”  And the comments get even worse. “I don’t want to hear any complaining from you, you and [spouse] did this to yourselves.” Only a supervisor with intentions to rid themselves of pregnant employees will make discriminatory statements like this to push the employee to quit out of fear of reprisal.

Discrimination Does Not Create Trust

The absence of trust becomes more noticeable when employees experience discrimination in the workplace or need to take time off due to health issues affecting themselves or a family member.  For these employees, their career with their particular employer has taken an abrupt turn for the worse.
For example, you become pregnant while employed and take a maternity/paternity leave under company policy and FMLA.  When you return, your job duties have changed and so has the person you reported to.  Pregnancy discrimination is one of the most perverse examples of a lack of trust an employee can encounter.  The employer has a maternity leave policy and you take a leave under said policy with no resistance.  However, upon returning to work you face pregnancy discrimination when your employment is terminated.  The employer will jump at an opportunity to replace you rather than reinstate you.  We would all agree, this is not an ideal trust building experience at any company, yet pregnancy discrimination continues to persist.
If you complain to your employer about issues of discrimination or whistle blowing, you will immediately cause your employer not to trust you.  You have a legal and moral right to complain about these issues, but do not expect reciprocation from your employer.  You just threw yourself off or under the company bus.  This equals your spouse cheating on you and then pointing the finger at you as the cause for why they had the affair.  Your employer’s Human Resources Department will not help you when you are down and have complaints about coworkers or your supervisor.  I am sure the folks in HR are nice people, but their “job” is to protect the employer, not you! Don’t make the mistake in confiding with human resource personnel, unless absolutely necessary to build a case for retaliation.

Arbitration and Noncompete Agreements Don’t Create Trust

Arbitration and non-competition agreements and employer trust are like oil and water with a sprinkling of gasoline for added flare.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s further endorsement of employer arbitration agreements cemented in stone the future of employee litigation and the permanent role of arbitration in your career. Listen, don’t be fooled, arbitration agreements are bad for you, your rights, your claims, the economy and are only good for employers.  Noncompetition agreements are even a better example of a lack of employer trust.  When your employer is finished with you and terminates your employment, they sink a big fishing hook in you and reel you back in at their whim each time you land a new position.  The employer cries foul, complaining you are single handedly destroying the company via working for the competitor.  These two forms of employment agreements represent the worst in every company that mandates them.  An arbitration agreement is a tool to conceal bad corporate acts from employment attorneys like myself and non-competition agreements are used to threaten competitive employers in the market place.

Rise Up and Demand More Trust

It is time to call an end to bad corporate practices- the deceit, the greed, the lies and the double speak.  Employees should demand more from their employers.  Rise up and unite together and tell your employer you would trust them only if they demonstrated trust to you first.  Trust begets trust.
Have questions or think you’ve been discriminated against at work? Let our employment law attorney’s help you get justice.  Get in touch today!

10 Things You Should Know About Employment in Connecticut

10 Things You Should Know About Employment in Connecticut

If you work in Connecticut, there are facts you need to know about when it comes to your employment rights. In this post we’ll cover the top 10 things you need to know as an employee in CT.

1. Employers Can Give Bad References, Just Not False Ones

Employers no longer give references for former employees, so stop worrying.  Employers fear being sued for defamation or claims for negligent hire. The majority if not all employers will provide prospective employers and their recruiters with your dates of employment, position, and possibly salary. The employer will not provide the reason(s) for termination.  However, if you hear your former employer said they would not recommend for rehire, that is code language that you are a poor employee. The only exception I can think of is if you and your employer are FINRA registered members, i.e. brokerages and licensed employees in the financial industry.  FINRA regulated employers are required to provide the reason for termination in the employee’s U-5 record.

2. Connecticut Employees Allowed 16 Weeks Unpaid FMLA Leave

Under the Connecticut Family Leave Act, employees are entitled to take up to 16 weeks of unpaid leave. Connecticut law provides for an additional 4 weeks on top of the federal FMLA (12).  Employees should ask there employers if they have short term disability benefits to coincide with the 16 weeks of leave.  A typical STD plan provides for six months of paid leave at 60% of the employees base pay. Nothing is guaranteed, and the employer will not volunteer the information. Employees in need of a leave of absence must self-advocate for their rights and document all their requests in writing. Remember, your job is protected during the FMLA, but if you fail to return before your leave ends, you will lose your job.

3. Connecticut Employees Have a Right to Personnel Files

Connecticut employees are entitled to a complete and accurate copy of their personnel files, including a copy of their supervisor’s version of their file.  All the employee has to do is make a written request via email to the HR department and the employer must provide a copy of the file within 30 days.  If the employer refuses, please contact the CT Department of Labor and register a complaint.

4. An Unfair Employment Termination is Not Necessarily Illegal

Listen, employers can be really mean and behave in very unfriendly ways. However, just because the employer is a pain in the butt and trying to make your life miserable, this does not mean the employer’s actions are illegal.  Employers do not care about employees, so get over it. Your job cannot be your identity.  You are an “at will” employee and you should never assume your job is secure, even if you worked for the company for 10 years.  In order to determine if your employer’s action to terminate you were illegal, you would need to speak to our employment attorneys.  A quick 15 minute call to our office will flesh out the legal issues and permit us to determine if you were fired unlawfully.

5. Independent Contractors Have Rights Too

You may not know it, but if you are an independent contractor you are still protected against unlawful employment actions such as discrimination.  You should also investigate if your employer is correctly classifying you as an independent contractor (IRS Form 1099) or regular employee (IRS Form W-2). We see a lot of employees misclassified as independent contractors when they should be regular workers. Employees fear challenging the employer on this classification because they believe they will lose their contract.  If you are in doubt, call the CT Department of Labor or call our office to speak with an employment attorney.  Also search the internet in Connecticut for the “ABC Test for Independent Contractors.” You can also search the IRS.gov website for the same information.

6. The Legal Effect of Quitting Your Job

Don’t ever quit your job!  You cannot collect unemployment benefits.  Also, it is too difficult to prove your voluntary job termination was a “constructive discharge”. The facts must show a series of recent events that violate state and federal law and that any reasonable person would also quit.  If you are in a tight bind where your employer is giving you the writing on the wall treatment to get out, speak to an employment attorney in our office first.  We will deter you from quitting and will advise you to leave your job through the signing of a separation agreement which includes a severance payment for your service with the company as a result of unlawful treatment.

7. Employees with Criminal Records Are Protected

Under Connecticut law, employers cannot refuse to hire or terminate an employee because of a criminal record. Obviously, each case is different, so you will need to contact an employment attorney in our office to figure out if you are protected.

8. You May Have a Legal Right to Severance Pay

Employees employed in Connecticut may have a legal right to severance pay.  If the employer maintains a severance plan governed by ERISA (federal regulation), employees working in Connecticut are considered participants and entitled to severance pay pursuant to the plan document.  The one condition to receive severance pay set forth in every ERISA severance plan is that the employee must signed a general release of claims.  How do you know you company has a severance plan? You can check your internal human resource portal or employee handbook.  All ERISA severance plans have to be filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.  Years ago I found this free website where you can research your employer. Insert the employer’s name in the site and go through the various plans listed. You are looking for a plan labeled with the word “severance” in it.  The plan severance plan code is “4i”.  If you find it listed, then you know a severance plan exists. Once you have identified your employer’s severance plan, make a written request to the Human Resources Department for a copy of the severance plan.  The HR Department has a legal obligation to provide a copy of the severance plan within 30 days of your written request.  You will find in the plan the amount of severance pay based on your years of service with the employer.  Don’t leave money on the table, but chances are the employer will remind you about your benefits, as they have a fiduciary obligation to you as a plan participant.  If you need a severance attorney, call our office and speak with one of our employment attorneys.

9. How to Predict When You Are Getting Fired

Hmmm, try your gut instinct.  Are you getting the awful feeling that your boss and coworkers have turned on you?  You may have been a satisfactory performer last year, but this year your rating sunk or needs improvement.  Or, you made a complaint to your supervisor or HR about your wages or unlawful discriminatory treatment, and suddenly your once friendly work place is not so friendly.  Maybe you just announced you are four months pregnant and you are getting the cold shoulder.  Worse, your supervisor makes pregnancy related comments and jokes.  Finally, if your coworkers and/or supervisors are openly hostile with you and use derogatory language directed at your gender, sexual orientation, race or age, then you know the crap just hit the fan and you need to speak to one of our employment attorneys.

10. Don’t Sign Anything When You Get Fired

Isn’t this obvious?  You should never sign anything when you leave your job. You should also not participate in any exit interview with the HR Department. No state or federal law mandates your participation in the exit interview.  What you need to do is speak with an employment attorney in our office who will figure out if the termination was lawful and whether the employer acted unlawfully prior to the termination date, i.e. demotions, discrimination, etc.
If anything mentioned above sounds like your current situation, or if you find yourself there in the future, Carey & Associates, P.C. can help! Our firm specializes in employment, wrongful termination, discrimination, whistleblowing, and more.

Contact us now!

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