There will likely be lots of lawsuits after the pandemic, according to labor experts.
Legal experts are worried about an onslaught of lawsuits concerning employment issues, including family leave and discrimination, as businesses slowly begin to reopen post-COVID. Parents who were required to continue working from home while managing schoolwork may be eager to jump on board. And, these lawsuits will join those already filed by employees claiming they were treated unfairly after voicing concerns over contracting COVID in the workplace.
Kristopher King, for example, filed a lawsuit against his employer, Trader Joe’s, in Kentucky state court claiming he was terminated for voicing concerns relating to workplace conditions. The lawsuit contends that on March 13, King created a private Facebook group for employees to vent their collective concerns. Then, after returning to work from a short illness on March 21, he was confronted by his manager about the group, which he admitted to creating. King “urged the company to make several changes in order to comply with the Kentucky Governor’s Executive Orders and CDC Guidelines.” Instead of taking these issues into consideration, however, the manager said he should resign if King was “concerned about these issues.” He refused and was ultimately terminated on March 28, filing the lawsuit shortly thereafter. More of the same have followed.
In March, Stephanie Jones, a single mom in West Chester, Pennsylvania, who has an 11-year-old son, also filed a lawsuit against her employer, Eastern Airlines, after having multiple unsuccessful conversations with about child-care concerns. According to the suit, filed April 16, she contends she asked her superiors if she could have two hours a day of flex time to focus on her son’s school assignments. Jones works as the director of revenue management and feels the long hours and weekends she was working from home more than compensated, anyway.
Jones alleged human resources “said her options were to take leave or resign.” So, she asked about “taking leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act” and was met with an email that the HR official “was also well aware of the various new laws that you’ve had time to look up while at home” and that the law was “there as a safety net.” Three days after this communication, Jones was terminated due to a supposed “conflict with other employees.”
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act was established to expand paid sick leave and family medical leave in the workplace to help vulnerable employees deal with schools and childcare centers being closed amid the pandemic. Under the act, workers at businesses employing fewer than 500 employees are eligible for up to twelve weeks of paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave at two-thirds of their regular pay through the end of 2020.
“I’m one of these that believe that when the courts open back up, there’s going to be an explosion of coronavirus-related litigation, and this is just one piece of it,” said Cynthia Blevins Doll, an attorney with the firm Fisher Phillips. “The law created new forms of paid leave that employers are not accustomed to managing.”
Christine Dinan, senior staff attorney for A Better Balance, said, “Some callers said they had been denied leave or paid time off for childcare. As workplaces open back up, those tensions are really going to be on prime display.”
Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University, added, “For many, the pandemic has increased the burdens on women for household and childcare duties. All the different systems that women across the class ladder rely on to help them with that greater burden are gone overnight.”
“If you fire someone because of an assumption that she’s not a valuable worker because she’s a mother, that’s gender discrimination,” said Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California Hastings. This should serve as fair warning to employers who may be systematically terminating vulnerable workplace populations during the crisis. She added, “The optimistic view is that we’re finally going to change our view of the definition of the ideal worker. The pessimistic view is we’re going to have an avalanche of lawsuits as we discriminate against adults with caregiving responsibilities.”