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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.