SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Tagged with COVID-19 lawyer

For the past year, employees have been undergoing medical screenings and answering questions about their personal health to gain access to their physical workplaces. Employers can lawfully request their health status or require them to take leave from work if they appear to have symptoms of COVID-19. Despite laws protecting employee privacy and the dignity of being in control of our own medical decisions, the public health emergency resulting from the spread of COVID-19 has drastically changed the landscape when it comes to employment decisions based on disability or perceived disability, the duty to reasonably accommodate and the prohibition against workplace retaliation.

6AE55F99-A017-42B1-BEAB-4D7220445832-300x169The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act makes discrimination based on disability illegal and protects from retaliation individuals who exercise their rights under that law. Other laws, including state and local laws, such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New York City Human Rights Law, provide employees with additional protections. Anti-discrimination laws continue to apply during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they must coexist with guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state and local health authorities concerning, among other things, an employer’s right to access employees’ medical information and perform health screenings in the workplace. The intertwining of anti-discrimination laws and public health regulations in the current climate has created a question about whether a COVID-19 infection or perceived infection qualifies an employee for anti-discrimination protection based on disability. The answer will be different depending on whether federal or state law governs the employment relationship, and if state law, which state.

Disability discrimination occurs under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act when an employer treats an employee unfavorably because he or she has a disability, has a history of a disability (such as cancer that has entered remission), or because the employer believes the employee has or used to have a disability. However, not all medical conditions equate to disabilities under the legal definition of the term. A person can show that he or she has a disability in one of three ways: (1) he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, hearing, learning, or limits the operation of a major bodily function); (2) he or she has a history of such a disability (past depression that is currently being successfully treated); or (3) he or she is subject to an adverse employment action (such as demotion, termination or a change in job duties or pay) due to the employer’s belief that he or she has a physical or mental impairment that is more than something minor and temporary.

Most people know that Workers’ Compensation provides benefits to employees who get injured or sick as a result of their jobs. Workers’ compensation is a State-run insurance program that provides medical and other benefits to individuals who suffer job-related ailments. It also provides death benefits to an employee’s dependents if the employee dies as a result of the job-related illness or injury. Workers’ compensation is a no-fault program, which means that a sick or injured employee will receive the benefits no matter who was at fault, but in exchange, the employee cannot bring a civil action against the employer except under circumstances involving intentional acts.

IMG_0999-300x169So what about all the essential workers who are risking their health showing up to work every day during the Covid-19 pandemic? First responders, healthcare workers, and employees working to provide essential goods and services during the Statewide shut down are among those at the greatest risk of contracting and becoming sick from the virus. How does New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law protect them? Can Covid-19 be considered a work-related illness during our current public health crisis?

New Jersey lawmakers have recognized this as a serious problem in today’s workforce and have passed legislation to protect essential employees who contract Covid-19 at work. Senate Act No. 2380, approved on May 14, 2020, mandates that if during the public health crisis declared by Executive Order 103 (and extended by any subsequent executive orders) an essential employee contracts Covid-19 while at work outside of his or her home, there will be a rebuttable presumption that the contraction of the virus was work-related and fully compensable under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law, disability retirement, and any other benefits provided to individuals who suffer illness or injury related to their employment.  This presumption in favor of the essential employee can be rebutted by a preponderance of the evidence that shows the employee was not exposed to the virus while at work.

Governor Murphy signed legislation yesterday that amends the New Jersey Family Leave Act to provide job protections to employees who need to take leave from work during the COVID-19 epidemic in order to care for a family member because of qualifying reasons relating to the coronavirus. The passing of S2374 is part of a series of new laws enacted to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe impact it is having on New Jersey workers both at home and at their place of work.

IMG_4018-300x169In a press release, Governor Murphy said, “New Jerseyans should not have to make a decision between caring for a loved one with COVID-19 and keeping their job.  Our state is already home to the nation’s most comprehensive Family Leave Act, and it’s only right that we expand these protections to meet the unprecedented health crisis we are facing.”

The New Jersey Family Leave Act provides eligible employees with up to twelve (12) weeks of job protected leave for certain qualifying reasons relating to family leave.  These include bonding with a new born, adopting a child, the placing of a child into foster care with the employee or providing care to a family member who is suffering from serious health condition. The New Jersey Family Leave Act does not permit employees to take leave for their own serious health condition and therefore does not permit employees to take leave for their own heath related COVID-19 reason.  Employees who are suffering from COVID-19 could be eligible for leave under other laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, New Jersey Law Against Discrimination  or Americans with Disabilities Act.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many New Jersey employees to work in unsafe work environments.  Facing increased risk of exposure, many employees are rightfully concerned that they will become infected or infect others because of their employer’s failure to have in place proper safety measures limiting the spread of COVID-19 at the workplace. Not surprisingly, many New Jersey workers who are forced to work in unsafe working environments have voiced objections to their employers, governmental officials and others concerning the unsafe work environments. With the increased number of employee complaints, many complainants are left wondering whether they have any legal protection against their employers who have taken adverse employment action against them in retaliation for their complaints. While we indeed may be living in unprecedented times, the COVID-19 pandemic is not a defense available to employers who choose to retaliate against employees for making reasonable and good faith complaints concerning unlawful workplace issues. Luckily for New Jersey workers, the state’s strong whistle-blower laws can provide employees with legal protections should they be fired from their jobs for complaining about unsafe work environments, improper quality of patient care or other unlawful business activities.

IMG_3937-300x169The New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act is often described as being one of the most far-reaching, pro-employee, whistleblower statutes in the United States.  The purpose of the New Jersey anti-retaliation law is to protect whistleblowers from being retaliated against when they disclose, complain, object to or refuse to participate in certain actions at the workplace that he or she has a reasonable belief to be either unlawful, in violation of public policy or improper quality of patient care, should the employee be a licensed or certified health care professional.  A retaliatory action can manifest in the form of a demotion, suspension, termination or other forms of adverse action that would dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of unlawful retaliation.

Governor Murphy’s Executive Order No. 107 may also provide COVID-19 whistleblowers with additional legal support that their COVID-19 related complaints are protected under the New Jersey whistleblower law.  While Executive Order No. 107 bans many non-essential retail businesses from operating during the pandemic, it also places obligations upon essential or non-retail businesses and how they need to operate their business during the pandemic. For example, all businesses must accommodate their workforce, wherever practical, for telework or other work-from-home arrangements.  Additionally, for employees who cannot perform their job duties via telework or work-from-home, businesses should make best efforts to reduce staff on site to the minimal number necessary to ensure that essential operations can continue. Many businesses are ignoring these requirements in running their business during the pandemic.

On March 27, 2020 the President Trump signed into law a massive stimulus bill, H.R. 748, which provides, among other things, a host of employment related protections and benefits to New Jersey workers. The stimulus package, titled the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act (hereinafter referred to as the “CARES Act”), provides aid to American citizens that have been negatively impacted by the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic.

IMG_3844-300x169Included in the Act’s employment protections are additional unemployment compensation benefits, expands paid leave protection, and provides payroll protections to small businesses. The bill has been heavily negotiated by both political sides for the past few weeks.  The final negotiated bill has received overwhelming bipartisan approval, receiving an approval by the Senate on Wednesday in a 96-0 vote. The employment related benefits provided under the CARES Act to New Jersey workers include the following:

Unemployment Benefits

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