What You Need to Know Before You Return to Work
Even though the majority of Americans think it is too soon, states across the nation are declaring themselves “open.” Connecticut canceled in-person classes for the rest of the school year on May 5, but plans to “open” on May 20. One way or another, we will be expected back to work and life will return to normal. Normal. Right? Except there is nothing normal about life in the time of coronavirus and the economy isn’t Field of Dreams.
Connecticut plans a 4-stage opening. May 20 is the target date, but specific milestones have to be met first, including a 2-week decline in hospitalizations, increased testing, and adequate personal protective equipment. Once the opening begins, restrictions are lifted depending on system of scoring factors that limit the likelihood of transmission.
Connecticut’s task force is a masterpiece of public/private partnership, featuring the best minds in public health, medicine, management, and business. To hear them speak inspires confidence. It is a welcome respite from the unreliable and politicized rhetoric with which we usually contend. But as good as it sounds in the abstract, it is a different story when it comes to your health, and your job, and your family.
So what can you do to protect yourself when you return to work? Arm yourself with knowledge.
- Know What Your Employer is Supposed to be Doing. I was an employer and I work for a highly ethical employer, but every time I find myself believing that most employers want to do what’s right, I have a conversation with a potential client that reminds me this simply isn’t true. I spoke with someone earlier this week whose employer thinks this coronavirus thing is blown out of proportion and openly mocks the employee who asks about disposable gowns and other appropriate PPE. Just awful.
Here’s what you do: go to the coronavirus section of your state’s website. It will have the information you need to know about PPE, social distancing, maximum occupancy, and services you can provide. In Connecticut’s first stage, for example, face masks are still required. Restaurants can serve food at outside seating areas, but bars will not be open.
- Know Your Rights.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act guarantees you the right to a safe workplace, and you have the right to report unsafe work conditions without fear of reprisal. I wrote about this in my article about Whistleblower Laws, but the bottom line is your employer is obligated to comply with the staged opening. You cannot be forced to serve patrons in a crowded bar until the state says it is safe for you to do so.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is your friend, even if you aren’t in a union. You have a right to get together with your co-workers and talk about working conditions and to bring your concerns to your employer. You and your co-workers can refuse to work in unsafe conditions, stage a walk out, publicize your concerns to elicit community support, wear buttons or t-shirts with slogans protesting your working conditions, and try to unionize. All of this, and your employer cannot interfere with, restrain, discipline, or terminate you for doing so.
Important to keep in mind: the NLRB protects “concerted activity.” It is about banding together with your co-workers for common cause. An individual, acting alone, has limited protections – she can seek to initiate group action without fear of reprisal or bring truly group concerns to the attention of management. But you are on your own if you institute a work stoppage over your personal gripe about who controls the thermostat.
Smart employers will institute policies of telecommuting where possible, maintaining social distancing, zero physical contact, temperature checks, employee and visitor PPE, and meticulous cleaning. If yours doesn’t, follow Dee Snider’s advice and proclaim, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
What You Need to Know Before You Return to Work. For more information about this article or to speak to one of our Employment Lawyers in Connecticut and New York, call Carey & Associates, P.C. at 203-255-4150.