Workers Rights During Public Health Emergencies
It is impossible to really plan for any emergency or disaster. When natural disasters like a hurricane, flood, earthquake, tornado, or fire happens many employment laws come into effect. Similarly, when there is a public health emergency, it is important for employers to be aware of employment & labor laws that may impact their employees in these situations.
Read below for answers to employment questions on state and federal law regarding public health emergencies, insurance, quarantine, leave, and more.
- I am feeling ill, and cannot come into work. Can my employer force me to come in anyway?
- I have run out of sick leave and I am ill, can my employer grant me advanced sick leave?
- I am not sick, but I have been in direct contact with someone who has an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, can I be allowed to work from home?
- I am healthy, but family member has been quarantined due to exposure to an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, can I be allowed to work from home?
- If the World Health Organization (WHO) declares COVID-19 to be a pandemic, can an agency order one or more employees to evacuate their worksite and work from home?
- My child’s school has been closed, Federal offices are open, am I allowed to telework with a child in the home?
- I am an hourly employee and my employer has closed their business due to a Public Health Emergency; how my hours of pay am I entitled to?
- Can my employer encourage or require me to telework as an infection control strategy?
- Do employers have to pay employees their same hourly rate or salary if they work at home?
- Schools are closed because of a global pandemic, and I can't get child care, or I have to stay home to help a close family member; will my employer still pay me?
- My employer doesn't offer sick leave or any paid leave. I don't feel like I can take time off even if I feel sick. What are my options?
- Does my state offer paid sick leave?
- Are there any laws that apply directly to public health emergencies and employment?
- Can my employer make come to work if my work is deemed non-essential?
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) serves as the chief human resources agency and personnel policy manager for the Federal Government.
*The latest guidance from OPM adds details to considerations touched on briefly in prior guidance regarding employees staying away from work or being dismissed due to suspected Coronavirus-related illness.
No. Agencies must grant sick leave when an illness, such as COVID-19, prevents an employee from performing work.
Yes, advance leave can be granted to an employee who is ill due to an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, or must care for a family member who is ill.
However, while sick leave may be advanced at an agency’s discretion, it is not an employee entitlement. The sick leave regulations allow an employee to be advanced sick leave for exposure to a quarantinable communicable disease, subject to the limitations below:
- 240 hours (30 days) may be advanced if the employee would jeopardize the health of others by his or her presence on the job because of exposure to a quarantinable communicable disease;
- 104 hours (13 days) may be advanced if the employee is providing care for a family member who would jeopardize the health of others by his or her presence in the community because of exposure to a quarantinable communicable disease.
3. I am not sick, but I have been in direct contact with someone who has an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, can I be allowed to work from home?
An employee, covered by a telework agreement, may request to telework with the permission of the supervisor.
An employee may also request to take annual leave, advanced annual leave, other paid time off (e.g., earned compensatory time off, earned credit hours), or leave without pay.
4. I am healthy, but family member has been quarantined due to exposure to an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, can I be allowed to work from home
An employee may use annual leave, advanced annual leave, other paid time off (e.g., earned compensatory time off, earned credit hours), or leave without pay to care for a family member who is healthy but has been quarantined due to COVID-19 or an infectious disease.
An employee, covered by a telework agreement, may be able to telework with the permission of the supervisor.
5. If the World Health Organization (WHO) declares COVID-19 to be a pandemic, can an agency order one or more employees to evacuate their worksite and work from home?
Yes. An agency can order its employees to evacuate their regular worksites and work from home during a pandemic health crisis. (This applies when WHO makes the declaration — not state or local agencies.)
6. My child’s school has been closed, Federal offices are open, am I allowed to telework with a child in the home?
An agency that has a general bar on teleworking when there are young children or other persons requiring care and supervision may choose to adjust its policies to allow, as a special exception, telework in those circumstances in the case of an emergency, such as the COVID-19 situation.
Under such an exception policy, a teleworking employee would be expected to account for work and non-work hours during his or her tour of duty and take appropriate leave (paid or unpaid) to account for time spent away from normal work-related duties (e.g., to care for small children).
Family and medical leave insurance laws vary by state. Some call for some employers to compensate workers for at least some time during public health emergencies.
7. I am an hourly employee and my employer has closed their business due to a Public Health Emergency; how my hours of pay am I entitled to?
The FLSA generally applies to hours actually worked. It does not require employers who are unable to provide work to non-exempt employees to pay them for hours the employees would have otherwise worked.
Yes. An employer may encourage or require employees to telework as an infection-control or prevention strategy, including based on timely information from public health authorities about pandemics, public health emergencies, or other similar conditions. Telework also may be a reasonable accommodation. Read more about other health and safety measures on our Infectious Disease page.
If telework is being provided as a reasonable accommodation for a qualified individual with a disability, or if required by a union or employment contract, then you must pay the same hourly rate or salary.
If this is not the case and you do not have a union contract or other employment contracts, under the FLSA employers generally have to pay employees only for the hours they actually work, whether at home or at the employer’s office. However, the FLSA requires employers to pay non-exempt workers at least the minimum wage for all hours worked, and at least time and one half the regular rate of pay for hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek. Salaried exempt employees generally must receive their full salary in any week in which they perform any work, subject to certain very limited exceptions.
If exempt employees cannot work from home, and cannot come into work, an employer must pay the employee unless the exempt employee does not work for the entire workweek.
10. Schools are closed because of a global pandemic, and I can't get child care, or I have to stay home to help a close family member; will my employer still pay me?
As of now, only six states have legislation that pays workers for at least some time during public health emergencies, including coverage if a child's school is closed. They are Arizona, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
If your children or your parents are sick, the federal FLMA requires firms with 50 or more employees to provide eligible workers up to 12 weeks off to take care of themselves or family members with serious health conditions. But that leave is unpaid. Learn more on our FMLA page.
11. My employer doesn't offer sick leave or any paid leave. I don't feel like I can take time off even if I feel sick. What are my options?
The CDC strongly encourages people who have an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, to stay home as a measure to prevent the spread of such disease. If you do not receive sick leave or paid leave, absent state or municipal requirements that require paid leave or new legislation at the federal level, your employer isn't required to pay you if you don't do the job you're hired for.
As of now, 11 states — California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin — and the District of Columbia along with a few cities/municipalities, have legislation requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to qualified employers. Find more information on our State and Local Paid Sick Leave Laws, Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) & Emergency Paid Sick Leave and Employee Protections During Natural Disasters and Epidemics pages which provide resources to leave policies during natural disaters and pandemics.
Cities and Counties
These cities and counties have laws in effect that allow workers to earn paid sick days to recover from a short-term illness, care for a sick family member or seek routine medical care: San Francisco, Oakland, Emeryville, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Santa Monica and San Diego (Calif.); Washington, D.C.; New York City; Seattle and Tacoma (Wash.); Philadelphia (Pa.); Montgomery County (Md.); Chicago and Cook County (Ill.); St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth (Minn.); and Dallas (Texas). Find more information on our State and Local Paid Sick Leave Laws.
Yes. Our page on Employee Protections During Natural Disasters and Epidemics provides more information.
If a state or government has issued an Executive Order that prohibits or limits the movement of individuals for the health and safety of the general public, such as "Stay at Home" or "Sherlter-In-Place" orders issued during the COVID-19 pandemic, employers cannot force employees to go into work if they are non-essential workers. Employers are encouraged to allow non-essential workers to telework to the full extent possible and to use all available paid and unpaid leave. Whether an employee is a non-essential worker is fact-specific and may change in light of the evolving nature of the crisis.
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