Thousands of people have already begun filing lawsuits related to COVID-19, according to recent news reports. In some cases, businesses are suing insurance companies that deny them disaster coverage. In other instances, college students, travelers, and sports fans are filing claims against universities and businesses for charging them for services they didn’t receive when schools and businesses shut down.
A large portion of coronavirus claims have been related to workplace issues, such as workers filing for coronavirus-related workers’ compensation benefits or employees suing their employers for subjecting them to unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. It’s expected that many more COVID-19 suits like these will follow.
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COVID-19 Employee Wage and Hour Claims
It’s clear that many people around the world are suffering severe economic losses because of coronavirus. Businesses in all types of sectors have been hit hard by stay-at-home orders and closures related to the COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately, some businesses have used the pandemic as an excuse to skirt their obligations to employees and avoid following employment laws.
For example, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many businesses to layoff or furlough a large number of workers. In most instances, this isn’t illegal because states like Alabama follow the “at-will employment” doctrine, which allows employers to fire an employee at any time and for any reason.
However, this type of action becomes illegal when an employer chooses which employees to fire or furlough based on a protected characteristic like race, age, or gender. Workers who suffer this type of discrimination may have a right to seek compensation from their former employer.
Any business that downsizes its operations or shuts down a facility must also consider implications under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. This law typically requires most employers to notify employees at least 60 days before they lay off more than 50 workers at a single location or furlough them for more than six months.
While some businesses might be able to claim an exception to WARN requirements under the argument that COVID-19 caused an unforeseeable business circumstance, the current language of the law still protects employees until further notice. The government says it will review coronavirus-based claims under the WARN Act on a case-by-case basis.
Furthermore, the government has enacted additional requirements on paid leave related to COVID-19. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), many private and public employers must provide employees with additional paid sick leave for coronavirus-related circumstances.
For instance, employers must provide up to 80 hours of sick leave at a worker’s regular rate of pay if the employee has to miss work because they have been diagnosed with the virus. Depending on the worker’s situation, FFCRA also requires employers to provide either paid sick leave or paid family and medical leave for employees with virus-related circumstances, such as having to miss work to care for a child whose school was closed due to COVID-19.
If a business refuses to provide required leave time or terminates an employee for requesting FFCRA-related time off, then the employee might be able to sue for wrongful termination or other employment law violations.
With many employees working from home, it has been difficult to clearly define when the workday ends, which might lead employees to work much longer hours than usual. Additionally, some employers have laid off or furloughed some employees, which often forces those that have continued working to take on the absent employee’s workload on top of their own.
Each of these circumstances puts employers in danger of violating employment laws around overtime pay. These laws typically require employers to give employees additional compensation for the time they work beyond 40 hours in one week, unless the worker is exempt from overtime pay.
Some examples of exempt workers include salaried employees, managers, supervisors, and independent contractors. For any non-exempt employee, these workers typically have a right to compensation for overtime work and can sue employers who refuse to pay the money they owe.
Employers have classified many employees, such as emergency room nurses and grocery store clerks, as essential workers, and they have forced them to go to work, despite the possibility of hazardous conditions.
Many of these essential workers face heightened exposure to COVID-19 and risk contracting the virus because their jobs require them to interact with a large number of potentially-infected people. On top of that, many frontline employees claim that they have had to face these dangerous workplace conditions without proper protective gear, such as proper masks and gloves.
One of the remedies that might be available to these employees is hazard pay. This type of compensation is most commonly associated with people working overseas in war zones or in factories with highly explosive chemicals.
More generally, hazard pay is meant to provide additional compensation to any employee whose work duties involve extreme physical hardship or discomfort, especially when an employer doesn’t adequately minimize these hazards by providing proper protective gear.
Despite these dangers, hazard pay is one type of workers’ right that government regulations like the Fair Labor Standards Act don’t address for most employees. Instead, hazard pay is typically a benefit that employees can obtain through other contracts and obligations, such as terms reached in union negotiations.
It’s not yet clear whether all essential workers will be able to get hazard pay or “pandemic premium pay” for the ways they have gone above and beyond their normal working requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, many employees and unions for groups like healthcare workers, grocery store employees, first responders, and cleaning crews have started petitioning and filing lawsuits to try to obtain this type of additional compensation.
Got Questions About COVID-19 and Your Legal Rights?
If you have a question about your legal rights related to employment laws during the COVID-19 pandemic, contact Morris, King & Hodge, P.C., right away. Our experienced workers’ rights attorneys are committed to helping hardworking people across Alabama tackle complex issues and fight for the maximum compensation they deserve.
Contact us today by phone or fill out our quick online form to schedule your free case review.
Harvey B. Morris is a lifelong Alabamian who has been practicing law in Huntsville since getting his law degree and passing the state bar in 1966.