Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the Workplace

Most of us run paycheck to paycheck and have limited PTO (Paid Time Off/Personal Time Off) from work. We would typically find our way to work with an ordinary cold and tough it out just like our coworkers would do. But now we have COVID-19, and it is a different animal, so to speak.

The Coronavirus comprises a large family of viruses that affect humans and animals. There are seven (7) known types of Coronavirus. Four of the seven are very common and cause mild respiratory infections like the common cold. A fifth type is known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and a sixth type is known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and these last two tend to be more serious than the first four types.

The seventh type is a new type of Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) recently discovered in China and making its way across the world and into the United States and our local communities. This type causes a disease known as COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019). As of this writing, more than 500 cases have been diagnosed in the United States across 34 states, resulting in at least 22 deaths. These numbers will continue to rise as the outbreak spreads.

What does this mean for the workplace? Should you go to work if you are sick? Can your employer send you home if you are sick? Is your employer required to let you telecommute so that you can avoid being in contact with coworkers who may have been exposed to the Coronavirus? These are all excellent questions.

In North Carolina, an employer may direct a sick employee to go home. Many companies will have an employee handbook that sets out the policies for employees to request time off while sick. Employees should follow those procedures for requesting time off.

As lawyers, we are often asked whether the employer can make an employee use their PTO and force them to stay home or go home when they show up to work obviously ill. The answer is yes. Employers in North Carolina have the right to direct their employees in this way. You do not have the right to show up to work sick and place your coworkers at risk. While employers may allow someone to attend work while sick, the employee is always subject to being sent home if the employer chooses. If you suspect that you are sick, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you stay home except to seek medical care. Avoid public areas (ie. Do not go to work, school, or public areas!), avoid public transportation, stay away from others, limit contact with pets and animals, wash hands often, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

There is no requirement that your employer allows you to telecommute when you suspect that you are sick or when you want to avoid coming into contact with coworkers who might be sick. Although many large employers have led the way in some of the hardest-hit cities, like Seattle, by allowing their employees to work from home/telecommute, this is not required. In North Carolina, there is no way to force your employer to enable you to work from home if you are sick or trying to avoid coming into contact with coworkers who might be sick. Instead, you will need to use your PTO time if your employer does not offer the option of working from home. Again, look to your employee handbook if your company has one to see if it provides any guidance in these areas of concern.

As lawyers, we are also asked questions about what an employer can ask of us if we call in sick or request to use our PTO time during this outbreak. For example, can an employer ask you for a doctor’s note to document that you are sick? In general, an employer can indeed require you to have a doctor’s note under both the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but that does not give your employer the right to inquire about the details of your medical condition. If your employer requires a doctor’s note, ask your healthcare provider to provide you with a note for work. The notice you receive will not disclose any of your medical information, but it will show that you sought care from a healthcare professional and demonstrates the need for you to be away from the workplace.

There are 33.6 million workers in the United States with no access to sick leave. If you work at a small office, you likely will not have an employee handbook or a job that gives you PTO. If so, you will have to apply common sense to your situation. We hope that your boss would agree that it does not help anyone if you show up to work sick and risk exposing others, including the boss, to illness when it could have been avoided by following the steps above recommended by the CDC.

Many employees within this group of 33.6 million people will have to sacrifice pay and even their job if they become ill due to COVID-19. How we take care of these individuals will be an issue for officials in federal, state, and local governments to consider in the coming months.

At the Law Offices of Jason E. Taylor, P.C., we view our coworkers as a family, and we hate to hear that anyone is feeling ill. As this outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) infiltrates our local communities across North Carolina and South Carolina, we want to protect our coworkers, friends, families, and communities by following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We hope that you will join us in taking these precautions and staying informed with the guidance of your local health departments, who will be on the front line in keeping our communities aware of the local risk to each of us.

From our family of lawyers and professional staff, we wish you safety and good health. As always, let us know if we can answer any of your legal questions as we deal with this Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak together.

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