SALT LAKE CITY — This Friday, certain businesses in Utah will be allowed to reopen as the state lifts some restrictions.
Not everyone loves the idea, including some employees who will be called back to the workplace while the COVID-19 pandemic is still going on. But what rights will they have if they get sick?
Over the past several weeks, fast food workers and gig delivery drivers have voiced their safety concerns. Warehouse workers have gone on strike. Some nurses in California were even suspended when they refused to enter coronavirus patients’ rooms without proper PPE.
Now, as more of the workforce prepares to be recalled, employers are tasked with a delicate balancing act: Getting their businesses back up and running while addressing the reasonable fears of their staff that this ramping up will also increase their risk of getting sick.
“They have the right to be protected,” said employment attorney David Castleberry.
He also said employers would be smart to do their best to work with their employees and address reasonable concerns.
“You can quickly identify any concerns that may exist and have those concerns addressed,” he said.
If a business does open and an employee refuses to show up, Castleberry said they can be terminated.
“You have the right to say that to your boss, ‘No, I’m not going to come to work because I don’t feel comfortable,’” he said. “At the same time, your employer has the right to say, ‘Well, we’re going to consider that you’re quitting then.’”
On the flip side, if an employee is forced to go to work under penalty of termination and they get sick – it’s the boss who might wind up in trouble.
“There would be a right to sue. There would be a right to seek workers compensation benefits,” explained Castleberry.
But to win that claim, the employee would have to prove they actually contracted the virus at the workplace. And with the virus being everywhere, that’s going to be a very tough claim to prove.
Additionally, two new pieces of legislation on Utah’s Capitol Hill were working to change a worker’s ability to file claims.
Senate Bill 3007 would make it tougher to sue, providing “immunity” to the people who own the property where someone catches COVID-19. The bill is still in the hands of the Senate.
The other, House Bill 3007, will make it easier for first responders— firefighters, paramedics, nurses or doctors — to get workers’ compensation benefits if they contract COVID-19 on the job. Those benefits would extend to their loved ones should they ultimately die from the disease. This bill passed the legislature and was signed by the governor on April 22.
While the worst-case scenarios can get contentious, Castleberry expected those will be rare based on his conversations with business leaders.
“They want employees to feel safe, to feel protected, to feel heard — as we try to return to some semblance of normalcy,” he said.