As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic spreads, more and more people will be forced to skip work.
The government may impose “isolation” on anyone who is actually sick with COVID-19, or “quarantine” anyone who doesn’t show symptoms but has had contact with sick people or traveled to infectious areas (the distinction may prove important for legal employment protections).
But not every worker has the flexibility to miss work. The laws around the issue are pretty murky, so here’s what you need to know about keeping your job during the coronavirus epidemic.
The federal government protects workers with “serious health conditions”
As you might expect, there are federal protections for employees who have to miss work due to serious medical situations. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) offers 12 weeks protected leave, which would likely cover any sick individuals in government mandated isolation to receive medical care. For anyone under self-quarantine who isn’t actually sick, protection under the FMLA isn’t as clear. The law also only applies to employers with at least 50 employees.
Employers can fire someone who can’t do their job
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) protects workers from discrimination based on “disability,” though it’s unclear exactly what that word means in terms of an illness like coronavirus. However, if your job requires you go to a physical location like an office, restaurant or retail store, and coronavirus prevents you from doing so for any reason, your employer may be able to terminate you, regardless of the ADA.
Working remotely could help
If your employer can provide “reasonable accommodation” for your condition, like allowing you to telecommute, without placing undue burden on the employer, then you may be protected by the ADA. Telecommuting is also the most responsible way to fulfill your obligations to your employer and to your community.
A few states specifically protect anyone under isolation or quarantine
Maryland, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas all have quarantine and isolation laws that specifically protect employees.
Layoffs are on the way
The economic shock of the coronavirus won’t be fully understood or fully felt for months. Disruptions to supply chains for global companies like Apple, fear-driven market selloffs, decreased consumer demand and travel, and the cancellation of major events will all likely have long term impacts on employers in the U.S., who will in turn pass on some of that heartache to their employees. Unrelated to the attendance or health of individual employees, layoffs have already started, even as politicians and economists work to mitigate damage and prep the country for an economic rebound.