Workplace Rights & COVID-19 | Brown Kwon & Lam

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In New York State, more than 52,968 individuals have died from COVID-19. In addition, more than 2.11 million people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The global pandemic has impacted so many aspects of life, and workers’ rights have been no exception.

At Brown Kwon & Lam, we know the fragility of COVID-19 has made workers’ fear of safety, employment security, and rights become a balancing act. And now, as employees return to the workforce, more issues have arisen. We’ve compiled a list of COVID-19 workplace rights issues you should know.

COVID-19 Workers’ Rights & Disability

As a result of COVID-19, employers had to rethink their employment policies when it comes to disability discrimination. As the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many traditional office jobs into a remote setting, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has developed accommodation guidelines to outline what employers are required to do to accommodate an employee with a disability.

Accommodations include:

  • Employees with a disability may request reasonable accommodations that could offer protection from COVID-19 exposure in the workplace.
  • Employees with certain pre-existing mental health conditions. For example, conditions such as anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder may have more difficulty handling the disruptions caused by COVID-19. To provide accommodations, employers may ask questions about the disability.
  • Employees are not entitled to accommodation to avoid exposing a family member. This even includes family members who are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition.

These federal and state laws still protect employees in the time of a pandemic:

COVID-19 Vaccination & Discrimination

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes readily available, employees may wonder what obligations they will have to employers if they have a religious objection or medical objection to the coronavirus vaccination. If you have a religious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine, here is what you need to know.

  • 1. Reasonable accommodations must be given to an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances. These are cases where such beliefs do not permit vaccinations unless such accommodation poses an undue hardship. This is legal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • 2. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits an employee to request an exception to mandatory vaccinations for a disability that would stop him or her from getting the vaccine. They cannot if it poses an undue hardship on the employer.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has also released guidelines on workplace vaccination policies and incentivization. You can read more here.

Whistleblower Protections and Coronavirus – Workplace Rights

Since the onset of COVID-19, many New York employees have feared retaliation or have already faced wrongful termination as a result of raising concerns for workplace safety during a global pandemic.

As a result, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted protections for New York State and City employees during this pandemic. Employees may file complaints against employers for the following reasons including, but not limited to:

  • Employer forces/forced you to work at a business that is not allowed to operate.
  • Employer forces/forces you to work for a business that is allowed to operate, however: (1) your employer is not taking proper safety and health precautions; (2) you have particular concerns because you or a family member are part of a vulnerable population.
  • Your employer has failed to pay you wages owed for hours worked, earned sick pay, or paid time off.
  • Your employer has threatened or fired you for reasons related to COVID-19.
  • You qualify for COVID-19 paid sick leave and your employer refuses to pay it.
  • Your employer is forcing you to work when you are sick.

Unfortunately, employees still fear retaliation as whistleblower protections are still not in the place they need to be as the virus is one year in.

COVID-19 Sick Leave Laws

Though not directly tied to COVID-19, New York State has put a paid sick leave law into place. After going into effect on September 30, 2020, employers are now legally required to record accruals for paid sick leave for every employee. This accrued time will carry over year to year, starting January 1, 2021. New York State Sick Leave explains that employees are to receive sick leave benefits at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked. An employer can also elect to frontload all sick time at the start of the year. Employer size and income determine the minimum hours that an employee may use each year:

  • 1-4 Employees: 40 hours of unpaid sick leave
  • 1-4 Employees with employer net income greater than $1 million: 40 hours of paid sick leave
  • 5 to 99 Employees: 40 hours of paid sick leave
  • 100+ Employees: 56 hours of paid sick leave

Sick leave time under the law can be used for any of the following conditions:

  • Mental/physical illness, injury, or health condition in an employee or employee’s family member.
  • Diagnosis, care, or treatment of mental/physical illness, injury, or health condition of an employee or employee’s family member.
  • Domestic violence services and assistance for an employee or employee’s family member.

New York State Employee Rights In COVID-19 Era

New York employees have a right to a safe work environment, to be free of discriminatory practices, and to take care of the ones they love. But when COVID-19 complicates your day-to-day, you have options. While coronavirus numbers aren’t at their peak, the legal issues are only just beginning.

Brown Kwon & Lam is here for your New York employee rights in the COVID-19 era. Contact us today.

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