Newsletter: What happens when vulnerable employees return to workplaces?
Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor, back with our weekly newsletter about how you and your bank account can weather the pandemic and prepare for whatever the economy might look like on the other side.
Getting through the coronavirus crisis is tough for everyone, but there are particular challenges for people who are especially vulnerable to the virus and must start showing up at work. I spoke with business reporter Laurence Darmiento about his coverage of the challenges facing vulnerable employees and their employers as businesses start to reopen across California. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
If you’re especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, what options do you have when your workplace reopens?
If you’re a worker who has an underlying medical condition or is older — in your 60s, let’s say — you do have protections under federal law. If you have a medical condition such as diabetes or asthma, those are considered disabilities under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The act allows you to ask your employer for reasonable accommodations to do your job. Let’s say a worker has a sight issue — maybe they’re given something that would assist them in doing their job.
If you’re older than 40, there’s a law that prevents employers from discriminating against you based on age. That means an employer couldn’t establish a rule saying that workers over a certain age can’t come into the workplace due to COVID-19. That would be a blatant violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.
However, at least according to attorneys on employers’ side, there isn’t a law that entitles employees to a workplace where they have a 0% chance of catching the coronavirus. Advocates for workers and employers are trying to deal with a situation that’s novel, and there isn’t necessarily a law that directly applies to this situation.
Are there any risks for employers who choose to push vulnerable workers to return to work?
Generally speaking, no employer wants their employees to get sick from COVID-19. You would hope that measures are taken to protect those vulnerable workers and all workers, but it’s going to be a challenging environment. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is concerned that employers could get hit with very expensive lawsuits if employees or customers come down with COVID-19 and claim that they got it in the workplace. The question of how this will all turn out is going to be played out case by case over time.
While the ADA requires employers to provide workers a reasonable accommodation, sometimes an employee may feel it’s inadequate and may want to take personal leave. An employee can also be moved to a safer job. However, if a vulnerable employee is not performing any job, there is no requirement that an employer needs to retain that employee on the payroll forever.
Are there any risks for employers who choose to prevent vulnerable workers from returning to work?
Yes. Employees who think they’re being held back because of their age or a disability could file a discrimination claim against their employer. For example, if an employer tells a worker they won’t be going on a business trip, that they want someone younger going instead, the worker could claim they’re being held back from career advancement.
That’s where the dilemma is for employers. They face the prospect of vulnerable employees feeling either that they’re being put in danger or potentially having their career advancement held back by an overly protective employer. As one attorney told me, it’s a real minefield.
Based on your previous reporting, it sounds like antibody tests aren’t an ideal way to determine which employees can return to work. Can you summarize why?
At this point, there isn’t sufficient scientific evidence to show that antibodies provide long-term protection from getting COVID-19. The idea of immunity passports, which some folks in the business community had really hoped would be a way to open up the economy, is just not something that is recommended at this time.
Do you have any additional information that may help vulnerable workers?
The key thing to think about is how you can get your job done and minimize your exposure. AARP is recommending that employers allow employees to telecommute as long as possible because our grand experiment with telecommuting seems to be working.
If they are brought back, some vulnerable workers may feel fine with their employers’ efforts to safeguard the workplace. If they don’t feel it’s adequate, sometimes there are very simple solutions that can be applied to improve the chances that a vulnerable worker won’t contract COVID-19. It could be as simple as putting an employee in a spare office with a closed door.
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One more thing
Are you working from home and finding it difficult to adjust to an increasingly isolated professional life? Now that we’re months into our work-from-home experience, here’s a tip that may prove particularly helpful: Try listening to a little ambient sound. I spoke with a professor who suggested that listening to soothing sounds like rainfall, birds singing or even office noises could help us feel more at ease while working during the crisis. If you have a soundtrack that works especially well for you, I’m taking recommendations!
Have a question about work, business or finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, or tips for coping that you’d like to share? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we may include it in a future newsletter. Keep an eye out for our answers to questions from readers, which will return next week.
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