As states start to gradually reopen businesses and encourage service providers to return to work, many employees with underlying health issues are worried. Especially in industries that involve a lot of contact with the public or where employees work in close quarters, it may be impossible to maintain the levels of social distancing that the CDC recommends.
Older adults and people who have severe underlying chronic medical conditions, like heart disease, asthma and other lung diseases, or diabetes seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness. If you suffer from one of these conditions or are in another high-risk group and are being asked to return to work, you have options.
Option 1: The Family and Medical Leave Act
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows workers who meet certain criteria to take up to 12 weeks off to care for themselves or an immediate family member who is sick with a serious health condition. If you are infected with COVID-19, or you are caring for a family member who is ill with the virus, you may be entitled to take leave under this statute. Although this option protects your job, FMLA leave is unpaid.
If you or a family member is not ill, however, you are ineligible for protection under FMLA. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an employee may not take FMLA leave in order to avoid exposure to the flu or pandemic.
Option 2: State and Federal Benefits, Including Unemployment, Temporary Disability, and Sick Leave
New Jersey has numerous options available to help workers affected by the coronavirus, including those who are self-quarantining after potential exposure or on the advice of a medical professional. Depending on your situation, you may be able to collect unemployment insurance compensation, earned sick leave under state law, or temporary disability insurance. Whether you are eligible for unemployment compensation and how much you receive will be based on your previous work and salary history. This base amount has recently been supplemented with an additional $600 per week under the CARES Act; if you are eligible for unemployment compensation, you will automatically receive these extra Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefits.
You may also be eligible for Federal Emergency Paid Sick Leave under the recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). This law provides varying amounts of paid sick leave for employees who are suffering from COVID-19, caring for an afflicted family member, or who have been advised to self-quarantine by a medical professional.
Option 3: Requesting Reasonable Accommodation in the Workplace
If you have a serious health condition that impacts your ability to safely return to work, you may be able to request an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. These are modifications or adjustments to jobs, work environments, or workplace policies that enable qualified employees with permanent or temporary disabilities to perform the essential functions (i.e., fundamental duties) of their jobs.
A condition that did not previously impact your ability to do your job might rise to the level of a qualified disability in a workplace at greater risk for coronavirus transmission. For example, an emergency room receptionist’s severe asthma may not normally impact her ability to do her job. However, her medical provider has told her it would seriously increase her mortality risk if she were to contract COVID-19. She may wish to request an accommodation to allow her to return to work safely, such as a transfer to the reception desk on a floor that would expose her to fewer COVID-19 patients.
Contact an Experienced Legal Professional
If you are struggling to protect the health and safety of yourself and your family as you return to work, you may find it helpful to consult with an employment attorney. Federal and state governments have recently implemented many new programs to attempt to assist struggling workers, and these programs will likely continue to expand and develop to better meet community needs. An experienced professional can help identify which programs would be best for your needs, negotiate accommodations with your employer if appropriate, and help you get all the assistance you are entitled to in these difficult times.
For more information about how an employment attorney can help protect your rights, download our free ebook!