Essential Employees Worried About Coronavirus Exposure Have Few Options

Some grocery stores and other businesses are providing employees with protection. [pixfly / Shutterstock]
Some grocery stores and other businesses are providing employees with protective equipment like masks and gloves. [pixfly / Shutterstock]
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One of the early aid measures implemented in this pandemic has been a bit more flexibility for time off in the event a worker gets sick or has to care for someone who is sick.

But what about employees who aren’t sick yet and are worried they might become sick?

What are some of the policy changes that aim to protect employees during this pandemic?

We’ve seen changes to the unemployment system, and that’s in large part due to the rise of unemployment in the last month.

As businesses have been forced to close because they aren’t considered essential, there have been mass layoffs and the state and federal governments have had to rethink the way to administer unemployment benefits.

Employees who file during this pandemic are eligible for an extra $600 per week under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

And unemployment benefits are also available for employees who have to quarantine, whether or not they actually have COVID-19. One of Governor Mike DeWine’s executive orders mandated that change.

There’s also paid sick leave and partially paid family leave available through the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Liz from Kent asks how these changes apply to Ohioans who have had their work hours reduced significantly, but have not been laid off. What options do those employees have?

Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Kimberly Hall said depending on how much your hours are cut and how much you get paid per week, an employee with reduced hours may be eligible for unemployment due to this pandemic.

If a person is at risk for having severe symptoms or dying from COVID-19 but is considered an essential worker, what options does that person have?

Unfortunately not many, according to Case Western Reserve University health law professor Sharona Hoffman. She said employees who work for businesses that remain open, like grocery stores, could potentially ask the employer about using accumulated sick time or vacation time. Although we don’t really know how long the pandemic will last, so it might not get them very far.

It’s possible an employee could use paid time off through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but that’s only two weeks of paid leave as well. Hoffman said the time can’t be reused, so once an employee uses it, if they do get sick later, that time might not be available to them.

Hoffman said the employee can also ask their boss for protective gear and plexiglass barriers between cashiers and customers. The employee can also wear a mask and gloves.

Otherwise, that employee might have to resign. And ODJFS Director Kimberly Hall said that person, if he or she resigned voluntarily due to concerns about their health, might not be eligible for unemployment benefits, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

“I believe there’s a process where you can establish good cause, make a good cause argument, for that decision,” Hall said.

These are temporary changes, but could they have ripple effects for permanent decisions?

Health law professor Sharona Hoffman said many employee advocates are optimistic that we might see mandated paid sick leave come out of this.

“Paid leave is very important, and this might demonstrate how useful it is,” she said. “But there’s also going to be resistance from industry, from employers, so I’m not that optimistic that we will suddenly change our approach.”

There have been some reports of employers at least considering changing their best practices and changing the way we think about working from home and similar policies.

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