Working From Home: How Coronavirus Could Affect the Workplace

Businesses are grappling with how to deal with a potential outbreak. Here’s what they’re doing, and how it could affect their workers.

By Tara Siegel Bernard, The New York Times

Furloughs. Sick leave. Working from home.

You could experience any of these measures as businesses try to prevent their employees from being exposed to the coronavirus outbreak that health officials warn is almost inevitable in the United States.

Some companies have already taken precautions like limiting travel to affected countries or big international conferences. Others have asked employees to stay home because they visited a country with a more serious outbreak.

But with new unexplained cases being reported in the United States — and the first domestic death from the illness reported on Saturday — a growing number of American workers could soon be asked to alter their routines, or just stay home.

Exactly how that affects you will depend on many factors, including the generosity of your employer’s benefits and where you live. Here’s what labor lawyers and business groups say could potentially unfold in your workplace — and what rights workers have.
What are companies doing now?

The situation is ever-evolving as the virus continues to spread — and policies are being revised daily as employers monitor public health notices.

Nobody wants employees to come to work if they are sick or have been exposed to the virus, but U.S. workers are less likely to be covered by a paid sick leave policy than those in other developed countries.

“This can put hourly workers in a bind, and make employees in the U.S. more likely to show up for work when they are sick,” said Joseph Deng, who specializes in employment and compensation law at Baker & McKenzie in Los Angeles.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that employers establish “nonpunitive” policies, encouraging employees who are sick or exhibiting symptoms to stay at home.

“We may see companies develop more flexible and generous sick leave policies,” Mr. Deng said. That could reduce the hard choices that employees have to make.

What can my employer ask me to do?

If you have recently traveled abroad, your employer may ask you to stay home for the virus’s incubation period, which is generally up to 14 days. The same goes for people who have had close contact with someone who visited an affected region.

“We see that there are things that are starting to get a little more intensive in the U.S. but we are not anywhere near a state of emergency,” said Alka Ramchandani-Raj, an employment lawyer who specializes in occupational safety and health law at Littler, a large labor and employment firm. “Although numbers are going up daily.”

Northwell Health, the largest health system in New York, just asked 16 people — including eight clinicians who cannot do their job at home — to take a two-week paid furlough after visiting China, said Joseph Moscola, the company’s senior vice president and chief people officer.

Even if workers appear healthy at the end of the incubation period, their employers could require a medical exam.

“If there is factual evidence someone has been exposed to the virus, an employer may ask that person to go through a medical exam or fitness for duty exam to determine whether they are ready to return to work,” Ms. Ramchandani-Raj said.

Will I be paid if I’m told to stay home?

This largely depends on your company’s policies, but so far many larger businesses are seeing to it that affected employees get paid, one way or another.

Employees showing symptoms are generally taking sick leave or emergency leave, while those affected by quarantines have been working from home when that’s possible, according to a survey of 48 large employers with operations in the United States by Business Group on Health, which represents employers on health care and benefit matters.

Sixty-eight percent of the employers surveyed said they would pay employees as long as a quarantine lasted, even if they showed no symptoms and couldn’t work from home because of the nature of their job. Twelve percent said they would pay for a fixed amount of time, such as two weeks. Twenty percent of the companies, which were surveyed from Feb. 13 to Feb. 20, said they didn’t know or hadn’t made a decision yet on what they would do.

Paying workers in these situations “will serve to incentivize employees to self-identify and self-quarantine,” said Susan Gross Sholinsky, a lawyer with Epstein Becker Green in New York.

But American employers aren’t obligated to pay most workers, which may affect the response of businesses — particularly smaller employers.

Federal law requires that hourly workers be paid only for the time they work. Salaried workers, managers and executives will usually, but not always, be paid during a business disruption, Mr. Deng said. Employers who are not paying for quarantine periods often let workers use vacation, sick time, personal days and other available paid time off — if workers have it.

Union workers should review their collective bargaining agreements because they may have provisions that provide paid time off in an emergency, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

What happens if I or a family member get sick?

This also often depends on the generosity of your employer, labor experts said, because there are no federal requirement for employers to provide paid sick leave, even in the event of a natural disaster.

Roughly a dozen states and several cities — including California, Michigan, New Jersey, Washington, San Francisco and New York City — provide paid sick leave to many workers, often including those working part-time.

But the amount of paid leave will vary, and often depends on the size of the employer and how long someone has worked there. These policies typically extend to caring for family members as well.

If workers are seriously ill or take a while to recover, they may be entitled to unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but that doesn’t cover an estimated 40 percent of workers. Employees could also be eligible for short-term disability benefits depending on their workplace insurance or their state’s requirements, Ms. Sholinsky said.

“Or, if the illness is work-related — if the employee caught the virus while on business travel, for example — the employee may be entitled to workers’ compensation insurance” she added.
What are my rights if I’m worried about going to work?

That’s a common question as anxieties rise and even subway poles and elevator buttons appear more perilous.

“Employers have to be very careful and do a strict case-by-case assessment of whether that is a valid concern or not,” Ms. Ramchandani-Raj said.

Employees have a right to a safe workplace, she added, and employers must adopt neutral policies that protect everyone equally. But if pregnant women were deemed to be at greater risk, for example, and the government released guidance saying they should take extra precautions, employers would need to follow the government’s lead.

You could ask to work from home, but that’s not possible for, say, a retail clerk or salesperson. You’d probably have to use any paid time off or take a leave of absence — if that’s an option.

Can my employer ask me to wear a mask?


Let’s say you show up at work one day and find extra Purell dispensers and a box of medical masks.

If your employer wants to require you to wear a mask, it would be legally required to provide training on how to use and maintain them, Ms. Ramchandani-Raj said. There are other conflicts, too: Some employees might have medical conditions that are worsened by wearing a mask.

Instead, companies might make the masks available — without requiring employees to wear them.

Will my employer tell me if a colleague is infected?

The C.D.C. has said that if an employee infection is confirmed, employers should tell their co-workers that they may have been exposed to the virus.

But they shouldn’t tell you that person’s name — federal law requires them to maintain the confidentiality of the sickened person.

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