The COVID-19 pandemic has many people across the globe worried about their health and safety. This is especially true in California, which is the most densely populated state in the U.S. With so many people living and working near one another, many worry that they could contract the virus at work. Even more so, some are worried that their employers will force them to work even if they don’t feel safe or face wrongful termination.
Can I Be Forced to Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
If you work in an essential industry, then your employer could require you to come to work. This is because essential businesses are those that provide critical infrastructure and services. Examples of essential businesses include healthcare, food and agriculture, transportation, energy, public works, and communications. If you don’t work in an essential industry but your employer still requires you to come to work, then you may have grounds to refuse. By learning more about your rights and what laws are in place to protect you, you can have a better understanding of what might happen if you refuse to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Understanding California Law That Applies to COVID-19
In California, there are a few different laws that offer protections to workers. The first is the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA). This federal law requires employers to actively provide a safe and healthy work environment for their employees. This includes protecting workers from exposure to hazardous materials, including viruses like COVID-19. If your employer is not taking the necessary steps to protect you from exposure to COVID-19, then you may be able to file a complaint with OSHA.
Another law that offers protections to workers in California is the Industrial Welfare Commission Orders (IWC Orders). These orders set standards for wages, hours, and working conditions in certain industries. The IWC Orders also require employers to provide their employees with a safe and healthy work environment. This means employers must take steps to protect their employees from exposure to COVID-19. If your employer is not taking the necessary steps to protect you, then you may be able to file a complaint with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE).
The last law that offers protections to workers in California is the workers’ compensation law. This law provides benefits to workers who are injured or become ill as a result of their job. If you contract COVID-19 at work, then you may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.
There are also a few executive orders that have been issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first is Executive Order N-33-20 which was issued by Governor Gavin Newsom in March 2020. This executive order requires employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees if they are unable to work because they are:
Sick with COVID-19
Caring for an individual who has become sick with COVID-19
Caring for a child whose school or daycare is closed due to COVID-19
The second executive order is Executive Order N-51-20 which also was issued by Governor Gavin Newsom. This executive order requires employers to provide employees with up to 80 hours of paid sick leave if they cannot work due to the same reasons listed above.
These are just a few of the laws and executive orders that are in place to protect workers in California. If you have any questions about your rights, then you should contact an experienced employment law attorney.
What If I Refuse to Work?
If you refuse to work because you believe that your employer is not taking the necessary steps to protect you from exposure to COVID-19, then you may be protected under the law. However, if you are not protected under the law, then your employer may take disciplinary action against you, up to and including termination.
Situations where the employer does not have the right to discipline you:
You are following orders from a medical professional to self-quarantine.
You have been exposed to COVID-19 and are waiting for test results.
You are caring for a family member who is sick with COVID-19.
Situations where the employer does have the right to discipline you:
You are refusing to work because you do not feel like working.
You have not provided your employer with any medical note indicating that you are unable to work and require medical leave.
You are not following the safety protocols that have been put in place by your employer to protect you from exposure to COVID-19.
These generic scenarios are not exhaustive, and the outcome of any particular case is going to depend on the specific facts and circumstances. If you have any questions about your rights, then you should contact an experienced employment law attorney who can dig into the details of your case and advise you accordingly.
Can Californians Use Paid Sick Time to Cover a Coronavirus-Related Absence?
Yes, Californians can use paid sick time to cover a coronavirus-related absence. This is true even if the paid sick time was not originally accrued for that purpose. The paid sick time can be used to cover the following:
You are unable to work because you are sick with COVID-19.
You show no symptoms but received a positive COVID-19 diagnosis.
You are unable to work because you are caring for someone who is sick with COVID-19.
You are unable to work because you are caring for a child whose school or daycare is closed due to COVID-19.
You should note that the amount of paid sick time you have available depends on the size of your employer and how long you have been employed. If you have used up all your paid sick time, then you should work directly with your employer to discuss how to cover your absence. If you are met with resistance, then you should contact an experienced employment law attorney to discuss your next steps.