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Newsletter: Returning to the office? Here are your legal rights

Cheri McKinzie hugs her dog
Marketing executive Cheri McKinzie, shown with her English mastiff, is at high risk of complications from COVID-19. She says she was fired after telling her employer that she needed special accommodations at the office.
(Cali McKinzie)
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Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor, back with our weekly newsletter. Many employees who have worked remotely throughout the pandemic will be expected to return to the office this year — with no clear answers on how to handle COVID-related challenges at work.


My colleague Margot Roosevelt covered workplace-related complaints and lawsuits trickling in as part of our recent package of stories on the return to in-person work.

One of her findings: It’s unclear exactly how these disputes will turn out. “We’ve not had anything like this pandemic in a hundred years,” UC Berkeley law professor Catherine Fisk told Roosevelt. “And employment laws were developed fairly recently when infectious diseases were not a major threat, other than the annual flu.”

That said, here are some commonly asked questions about employees’ rights as they return to in-person work, based on Roosevelt’s reporting.

Can your boss require you to get vaccinated?

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In some cases, yes. But many employers seem to be holding off on requiring workers to be inoculated against COVID-19 until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives final approval to the vaccines.

By law, employers must provide safe workplaces — and it’s likely that most will decide that to meet this requirement, they must have their staffers vaccinated to the fullest extent possible, Fisk predicts.

Legal experts say that only workers who can prove they have a disability that’s incompatible with the vaccination or who have “sincerely held religious beliefs” against vaccines may justifiably claim an exemption. But if these cases hit the courts, the worker’s objection to vaccination won’t be the only consideration: “All the other employees’ interests in not being exposed to a highly transmissible disease” will be factored in, Fisk says.

Can your boss make you return to the office mid-pandemic?

Generally yes — but under California and federal law, companies are required to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities. The meaning of “reasonable” is open to debate, but employers are required to engage with workers to try to find a solution.

However, there are cases where this may not have happened. Take 58-year-old marketing executive Cheri McKinzie, who is at high risk of complications from COVID-19. She says she was summarily fired after telling her company’s leadership that she needed special accommodations at the office.

McKinzie says she was able to perform all work duties remotely when her employer, Golden State Farm Credit in Chico, Calif., closed its office in March 2020. Three months later, when the company ordered workers back to the office, McKinzie asked for accommodations such as a staggered work shift, an air purifier and a requirement for colleagues to wear masks at meetings. She says Golden State Farm Credit terminated her employment instead of considering her requests.

“My doctor said I could end up on a ventilator,” McKinzie said. “I begged for my job. It was humiliating.”

Can you sue your employer if you feel your workplace is unsafe?

It’s complicated. Lawsuits about whether employers are adequately protecting workers from COVID-19 are hitting the courts. Lawyers say forced arbitration will probably apply to most COVID-19 employment lawsuits — but many conflicts won’t qualify for either a trial or arbitration.

Workers can file complaints with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which generally enforces employers’ obligation to provide a safe workplace. Only the agency, not workers, has standing to sue employers for flouting these regulations.

On the other hand, workers with disabilities, such as McKinzie, can file lawsuits under disability discrimination laws.

It’s also possible to file a lawsuit under “public nuisance” statutes, but so far none of these cases have succeeded.

Except in instances of gross negligence, employers are generally immune from litigation if employees get COVID-19 at work, but workers’ compensation can still apply.

Do you have additional questions about your legal rights at work? Read the full story.

Curious about the challenges of returning to in-person work during the pandemic? Check out the rest of the stories in our “back to the office” package:

L.A. employers are preparing for your return. Samantha Masunaga, Laurence Darmiento and Andrea Chang explain the ways various organizations are approaching the transition back to in-person work.

Less office space, more video screens: Russ Mitchell spoke with Clorox to find out how the company is embracing hybrid work.

The first day back at the office might feel weird. Darmiento spoke with workers who have already returned about their experience back in the office.

“Hey, boss: Don’t expect to see me 5 days a week.” Ronald D. White discovered that wanting to work from home at least part of the time is a common sentiment.

Want to work remotely forever? Here’s my ultimate guide to making that happen.

◆ California was “the locomotive” of U.S. job growth in April, but it still has a long way to go, Margot Roosevelt and Hugo Martín report.

◆ The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is about to get a new leader. The agency already has begun undoing Trump’s pro-business agenda, says columnist David Lazarus.

◆ Does a teenager need a Roth IRA? Certified financial planner Liz Weston explains.

Need a quick buck? Try these platforms to find babysitting gigs, SideHusl.com’s Kathy Kristof advises.

◆ California’s stem cell program found a disease cure, but it’s being blocked by a biotech firm, writes columnist Michael Hiltzik.

◆ California’s next climate challenge: replacing its last nuclear power plant. Sammy Roth reports on what comes after the closure of the controversial Diablo Canyon plant.

◆ Many in San Francisco’s tech industry are leaving the West Coast to become part of Miami’s startup scene. Investor and entrepreneur Geoffrey Woo explains why.

One more thing

With new U.S. coronavirus cases dropping, do you feel ready to fly again?

Heads-up: After waiving change fees, freeing up middle seats and cutting airfares last year, airlines are reverting to their pre-pandemic ways, my colleague Hugo Martín reports.

Airlines have reinstated change fees for the least expensive, re-imposed expiration dates for loyalty program points and resumed filling their planes to capacity. On top of this, domestic airfares are up 12% from full-year 2020 prices, on average.

“During the pandemic, we saw airlines pulling out all the stops to incentivize people to travel,” Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper, an airline and hotel data analysis company, told Martín. “But I think the times are changing, and we are turning the corner.” Read the full story here.

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 californiainc@latimes.com, and we may include it in a future newsletter.

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