Employers may not be required to provide protection for employees against COVID-19

Workers around the country who are concerned their employer does not provide enough protection against the spread of COVID-19 face a difficult decision: return to work and risk infection or quit, lose income, benefits, and the ability to get unemployment income.

With some people returning to the workplace in Florida, there are questions about who could be held liable if an employee gets the novel coronavirus at work.

“We’re getting a lot of calls right now from employees that are concerned that their employers don’t have the protections that they want to make the workplace safe,” said Matt Fenton, a Tampa employee rights attorney with Wenzel Fenton Cabassa law firm. “At a minimum, the OSHA catchall safety clause would require that employers take proper precautions.”

Those precautions could include access to hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, masks, and physical barriers between employees.

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But overall, the standards for employers aren’t clear.

“Healthcare providers, hospitals, doctors, nurses have a clear set of federal standards they have to follow related to coronavirus, but employers have a vaguer set of standards,” said Quentin Brogdon, plaintiffs’ personal injury attorney in Dallas, Texas and a fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, the American College of Trial Lawyers, and the International Society of Barristers. “They’re based on their particular states’ standards and the local standards, and they can vary from employer to employer.”

On the national level, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Senate have actually put protections in place for businesses in an effort to free them from all liability.

The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Inform said it’s calling for liability protections for employers that follow government health guidelines -- unless they are found to be grossly negligent. The institute is also calling for liability protection for companies that make or donate personal protective equipment, as well as liability for those who use the products, such as frontline health workers and facilities who could face medical liability lawsuits -- unless they are found to be grossly negligent. Finally, it's calling for the protection of companies that might face securities lawsuits based on drops in share price due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, President Trump signed an executive order to limit liability for meat processing plants who have been ordered, by way of the Defense Production Act, to resume operations, but were not ordered to provide any safeguards for their employees against the spreading disease.

“We're going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that will solve any liability problems where they had certain liability problems,” Trump said.

One senior White House official said the order was to prevent a majority of the nation's meat processing plants from temporarily shutting down.

Brogdon said he believes a sweeping liability shield goes too far.

“I think there’s a middle ground that preserves accountability on the part of those businesses if they don’t take reasonable steps to protect their employees,” said Brogdon.

Attorneys say employees who have concerns about their workplace conditions should address them, preferably in writing, with their employer.

If you feel sick:

The Florida Department of Health has opened a COVID-19 Call Center at 1-866-779-6121. Agents will answer questions around the clock. Questions may also be emailed to covid-19@flhealth.gov. Email responses will be sent during call center hours.

LINK: Florida's COVID-19 website

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