Coronavirus: Your Rights in the Workplace

Learn whether you're entitled to pay if you're forced to miss work due to the coronavirus outbreak.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law

With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting workplaces all over the country, many workers are wondering about their rights. Some businesses, particularly in badly-affected areas of the country, are allowing (or requiring) their employees to work from home. But for workers in restaurants, factories, retail outlets, and other locations, remote work is not an option. Many of these businesses are requiring workers to take paid or unpaid leave to stop the spread of coronavirus, particularly if they have been exposed to the disease or live in a state that has a high number of cases.

If your employer requires you to stay home from work, or if you choose to stay home to protect your health, whether you're entitled to pay depends on a number of factors, including your employer's policies and federal and state law.

Employer Policies on Taking Leave

Many employers offer paid or unpaid leave beyond what is legally required by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and state law. For example, while the FMLA provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for medical reasons, some employers are more generous. The same is true for paid leave: while federal law does not require employers to offer paid leave, many businesses offer several weeks per year anyway. And as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, many businesses have announced that their workers are entitled to additional leave.

If you're forced to take time off work due to coronavirus, your company will probably require you to use up any of your remaining paid leave before taking unpaid leave. Consult your employee handbook or contact your human resources department if you have questions about your employer's policies.

Coronavirus and Federal Leave Laws

As mentioned above, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows covered workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave a year due to a medical condition (29 U.S.C. § 2601 and following). The FMLA covers employers who have employed 50 or more workers for 20 or more weeks of the current or preceding year. To be eligible for FMLA leave, employees must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months, with a total of 1,250 hours (an average of about 24 hours per week) over the previous year. (Learn more about who is eligible for FMLA leave.)

If you've tested positive for coronavirus, you will certainly qualify for 12 weeks of job-protected leave under the FMLA. And as public health officials have emphasized, you should self-isolatethat is, stay home and avoid any contact with others.

If you're caring for a family member with coronavirus, you qualify for up to 26 weeks of FMLA leave over a 12-month period. And because you have been exposed to the disease, you should also self-isolate to avoid spreading the disease to others.

Many workers are concerned about catching the disease at work, but haven't been exposed to it. Those employees won't be entitled to take FMLA leave unless their employer has explicitly stated they'll allow it. If in doubt, speak to your supervisor or human resources department to learn whether they'll allow FMLA leave for this reason. Just remember that under the law, they're not required to.

Additional Rights Under State and Local Laws

Some states and cities offer more generous leave policies than what is available under the FMLA. Workers in California, for example, accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 48 hours. New York City has a similar rule—one hour of leave for each 30 hours worked, with a cap of 40 hours a year.

Other states and cities are considering instituting paid medical leave policies in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

Workers' Compensation and Disability Benefits for Coronavirus

Most businesses have responded to the threat of coronavirus by canceling all non-essential business travel, especially to affected areas. But some business travelers were exposed to the disease before the outbreak became widely known.

If you contracted the coronavirus (COVID-19) on a business trip or in your regular workplace, you might wonder whether you'll be eligible for workers' compensation benefits. In general, workers' comp is available for those who suffer occupational illness or injury at work (or while traveling for work).

Under the workers' comp laws of most states, ordinary diseases such as cold and flu (and, most likely, coronavirus) aren't compensable, even if you caught them from a work colleague. However, if there is something unique to your profession that makes it more likely for you to catch a disease than a typical worker, you might qualify for workers' comp. Examples could include flight attendants, doctors and nurses, and home health care workers, professions that by their nature involve increased risk to communicable diseases like coronavirus.

Because the coronavirus outbreak is so unprecedented, it's unclear exactly under what circumstances workers' comp benefits might be available. Consult a workers' comp attorney in your area to learn more about your options.

Employees who have short-term disability coverage, whether through their employer or under state law, might also have claims for benefits if they contract coronavirus and need to miss work.

Contact an Attorney

If you have questions about your workplace rights under federal, state, or local laws, contact a knowledgeable employment attorney in your area.

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