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Coronavirus and the Workplace: What Employees Need to Know

— April 14, 2020

Coping with the new normal of the global pandemic means adjusting to a new work life, one that protects your physical and financial health and the health of your family.

In just a matter of a few short weeks, coronavirus, a microscopic pathogen, has transformed life as we knew it. It’s shut down schools. It’s decimated the travel and transportation industries. It’s put local, state, and federal governments on a war footing.

And it’s sent millions of American workers retreating to the safety of their homes. Businesses are shuttered and a once record-breaking economy is now on the verge of the next Great Depression.

Lawmakers, healthcare workers, civic leaders, and ordinary citizens alike are struggling to learn how to make do in a world suddenly turned upside down. But what about you? The worker who suddenly finds themselves on the employment rolls? The newly jobless parent with a family to feed? With medical bills to pay and a roof to keep over your children’s heads?

This article discusses the most important things you need to know to protect yourself and your family in the face of today’s pandemic and in preparation for life after the storm has finally passed.

Independent Contractor or Employee?

One of the first things you need to do when you’re trying to figure out how to protect your job and your family’s financial future in the face of this epidemic is to determine exactly what your employment status is. In general, an independent contractor will have fewer protections and benefits than a regular employee.

For example, an independent contractor is not typically entitled to unemployment or workers’ compensation benefits. Contractors are also not usually entitled to COBRA health insurance coverage following a layoff. [Editor’s note: at time of publication, the CARES Act is being implemented. This will allow some independent contractors and other members of the “gig economy” the ability to file for unemployment.]

What to Do If You Are an Independent Contractor

In a lot of ways, independent contractors might seem to fare worse than regular employees in the face of the current crisis. But that in no way means all hope is lost for you and your family.

In fact, in some respects, you may have an advantage if you have been doing contract work because that means you’ve probably been hustling for a while to build your freelance career. As such, you’ve probably already built a pretty extensive network of connections you can draw on during these troubled times.

Not only this, but there are also tons of great jobs you can pick up quickly right now. This includes a number of options that allow you to work from home, including home-based customer service, online tutor, and even survey-taker. 

These can be fantastic options for earning essential income while keeping yourself and your family safe. And if your state is one of the many under lockdown, or if you are one of the millions of parents with children now home from school, you don’t have to worry about childcare or about having to venture out every day into the hot zone to make money.

But if you do turn to work-from-home freelancing, it’s imperative that you keep meticulous records of your work and of the money owed to you. Using a freelancer invoicing template will help you keep track of your income, will minimize the risk of client disputes, and ideally, will expedite the payment process. These records will also prove to be a lifesaver when tax time rolls around!

Employee Rights

As discussed earlier, if you are a regular employee, chances are you’re going to enjoy more extensive rights, protections, and benefits than an independent contractor. At the same time, though, it’s important to remember that we’re in new territory here. 

Pandemics have been dealt with mostly in employment policy theory, not in practice. And there has really never been anything of this magnitude in modern times. Employment policies and legal protections are still being defined as they apply to unprecedented situations like this one.

An illustration of the novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), responsible for COVID-19. Image by CDC, via
An illustration of the novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), responsible for COVID-19. Image by CDC, via

That means that a lot of things still aren’t clear, such as the employee’s right to workers’ compensation should they contract the virus while at work. You might have a claim if you are exposed to the virus at work, and especially if there is reasonable evidence that the employer did not exercise sufficient caution and care in protecting employees from exposure. Likewise, if you can make the case that the infection would not have occurred had you not been performing your job duties, then it is possible that you would be entitled to workers’ compensation to cover your medical expenses and lost pay. 

As a regular employee, though, there are certain protections that are far less ambiguous. For example, you have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of a pre-existing medical condition, even if that condition puts you at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

However, when an infectious disease outbreak rises to the level of an official pandemic, your employer will have additional rights and responsibilities in order to mitigate the threat to the workforce. While an employer cannot terminate you because of a pre-existing condition, if a pandemic is declared, and your health status or other circumstances, such as recent travel to an affected area, put you at greater risk of contracting the virus, then your employer would have the right to potentially isolate you from other staff, require you to wear a mask or mandate that you work from home.

These measures, essentially, are another means of protecting workers’ rights because you and your colleagues have the right to a workplace that is as safe and healthy as is feasible. That means that certain health hazards will be considered legally acceptable in some workplaces, but not in others. 

A hospital, of course, will inevitably be a less safe work environment than a business office during a pandemic. That is a reasonable expectation for healthcare employees and, as such, is considered, generally, a legally-acceptable workplace health risk for that environment. 

That means that it is the legal responsibility of management and employees to take precautions to protect themselves in the face of these inevitable risks. This would include ensuring that nurses and other healthcare providers have the safety training they need to safeguard against exposure to pathogens to the greatest extent possible

The Takeaway

As the coronavirus sweeps across the globe, it is changing virtually every aspect of our lives, including the ways that we work and run our businesses. Coping with the new normal of the global pandemic means adjusting to a new work life, one that protects your physical and financial health and the health of your family. That means understanding your rights, including your rights to protection and privacy, whether you are working in a physical office, telecommuting from home, or are furloughed as the world holds its collective breath and attempts to wait the pathogen out. As scary a time as it may be for us all, however, it’s vital to know your rights and to take advantage of the safeguards in place to help you and yours recover, mentally, physically, and financially, when this storm is over.

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