Does Your Employer Have to Protect You From COVID-19?

By Andrew Leonatti on April 21, 2020

While millions of Americans are filing for unemployment, and millions more are getting used to working from home, others find themselves having to show up to work each day at their "essential" workplaces.

But essential doesn't necessarily safe. A Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is responsible for more than 700 COVID-19 infections among employees and their family members.

Across the country, more than 40 grocery store workers have died from COVID-19, and countless others have been infected.

Business like these, and pharmacies, factories, and other essential businesses have to stay open. But for that to happen, workers have to stay healthy.

OSHA Complaints Skyrocketing

At these essential business places, what duties do employers have to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection for their employees? Are they doing enough?

According to a new report by the Washington Post, many workers don't think so, and they are scared. Thousands of workers across the country have filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety regulations.

The complaints come from all sectors of the economy: airlines, grocery stores, hospitals, construction, call centers, shipping warehouses, and more.

And their concerns cover a wide range of activities and behaviors: being forced to work near sick coworkers, lack of protective equipment like masks and gloves, and lack of cleaning materials and soap, to name just a few.

What Do Employers Have to Do?

While there are numerous federal regulations on the books, when it comes to the coronavirus, OSHA has still only issued recommendations for employers to take. The Labor Department has stopped far short of the workplace recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those recommendations include:

  • Encouraging sick workers to stay home
  • Allowing workers with sick family members to follow CDC guidelines for self-quarantine
  • Informing employees of possible exposure to COVID-19 when an employee tests positive
  • Sanitizing work areas
  • Drafting emergency sick leave policies for workplaces that don't already have a policy
  • Being more flexible with staffing and work hours to allow more physical distance between employees
  • Increasing ventilation in workspaces to allow for more fresh air

That has led to cities and states stepping in, using emergency powers to take actions like limiting the amount of people in stores and requiring people to wear masks. Businesses are also taking extra steps on their own, such as sanitizing credit card machines after each customer uses one.

What Can You Do If Your Workplace Is Unsafe?

Where new state and city regulations are in place, you should feel free to contact the proper authorities if your employer is allowing an unsafe workplace. Enforcement may not happen immediately, however.

OSHA issued an interim enforcement plan earlier this month. However, the agency followed that announcement up days later with a statement instructing workplace safety inspectors to use their discretion if they believe employers are making a "good faith effort" to follow workplace safety regulations during the pandemic.

The real-world result of this could mean that workplaces will be able to be much more relaxed with workplace safety beyond coronavirus-related safety hazards. In some respects, this is not a surprise. With personal protective equipment in such short supply, employers may simply be unable to acquire the equipment they need.

In the meantime, if you feel your workplace is unsafe, you should contact OSHA, even if you do not get a response right away. An employment law attorney may also be able to help you evaluate your options to keep you and your family safe.

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