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What You Need to Know About Coronavirus in the Workplace

It seems like information about the novel Wuhan Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) changes by the hour. The number of cases continues to grow worldwide and specifically in the United States. What if your city becomes quarantined like Milan? How might the 2019-nCoV effect my employment or business? Here are some of the tough employment questions presented by the coronavirus:

1) Can my boss fire me for having the coronavirus? 

Answer: Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is an “at-will” employment state. That means your employer can fire you for any non-discriminatory reason. If you have a severe case of the coronavirus, you could be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). An individual must have an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities to have a covered disability under the ADA. If the coronavirus qualifies as an ADA disability then your employer cannot fire you just because you have it.

2) Can my boss fire me if I take time off work for coronavirus or to care for a family member with the coronavirus?

Answer: It depends on where you work. If you work for an employer with more than 50 employees and have worked more than 1200 hours in the past year, then you could qualify for FMLA leave to care for yourself or your family member.

After March 15, 2020, if you work in the City of Pittsburgh and you have accrued enough paid sick days under the new Paid Sick Days ordinance, you would be eligible to take paid sick leave without losing your job. 

If you work for an employer with less than 50 employees, having coronavirus could qualify as a disability under the ADA. Under the ADA, an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation, including in some instances a limited amount of time off work. The CDC recently published guidelines urging employers to adopt sick leave policies that encourage employees to stay home while they are sick. These are not mandatory or binding policies, but hopefully, most employers will develop systems like the model.

3) Can my boss fire me if I am quarantined in a hospital to see if I have the coronavirus? 

Answer: If you work for a company that is required to provide FMLA leave and you are a covered individual, you would likely receive FMLA leave if you are quarantined. While you must have a serious health condition to qualify for FMLA, a serious medical condition includes inpatient care that lasts for more than one day. Being quarantined for fourteen days at a hospital would likely qualify. Like the answer for #3, if you have paid time off or sick days, these could be used for the time you are quarantined. Unfortunately, if you have neither paid time off or sick days, the law is very unclear on whether or not your employer would have to give you time off from work. 

4) Can my boss make me work from home or shut down my office because of the coronavirus? 

Answer: Yes, as Pennsylvania is an “at-will ” employment state, your boss or the owner of the company has the authority to furlough employees or ask them to work from home. Twitter and Google have already made headlines asking employees in specific locations to work from home.

5) Can I collect unemployment if my boss furloughs me over the coronavirus?

Answer: It is unclear if you live in Pennsylvania, whether or not you can collect unemployment if your boss furloughs you over the coronavirus. In Washington State, which currently has the most cases of coronavirus in the U.S., employees may collect unemployment if their employer furloughs them due to the coronavirus. If your employer terminates your employment over the coronavirus, you would likely be able to collect unemployment in Pennsylvania. An employee in Pennsylvania may collect unemployment so long as the employer did not fire them for “willful misconduct.” Getting fired for being sick does not rise to the level of willful misconduct. 

6) Can my boss force me to wear a mask at work over the coronavirus? 

Answer: Yes. But your employer would have to comply with OSHA safety regulations and training

7) Can my boss force me to work or fire me if Pennsylvania declares a state of emergency over the coronavirus? 

Answer: There is a little known law in Pennsylvania, called the Pennsylvania Employee’s Failure to Report to Work During a State of Emergency Law, 43 P.S. §148 which prohibits employers of non-essential, non-emergency workers from firing an employee that cannot come to work “due to a closure of the roads in the county of the employer’s place of business or the county of the employee’s residence resulting from a state of emergency declared by the Governor.” So if Tom Wolf closes the roads due to the coronavirus and you are unable to come to work, your boss may not terminate your employment. 

If you have any additional questions about the coronavirus and your workplace, do not hesitate to reach out to one of our experienced employment attorneys and take a look at our Employment Discrimination in Pittsburgh PA page.

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