After lockdowns, employees are returning to work wondering if their employer has a duty to make their workplace safe. But will employers be held accountable if their employees contract coronavirus?
This is a difficult question to answer, as, from a legal point of view, it is hard to prove that employees contracted coronavirus in the workplace. With such a long incubation period and the possibility that it may be caught anywhere, it would be nearly impossible to prove where the virus was contracted. However, it may be possible to sue an employer if they fail to take reasonable steps to protect their staff and customers from contracting coronavirus. As more workplaces open, it is important that adequate steps are taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19 so the death rate can reduce, and the economy can get back on its feet.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has laws that require employers to create a workplace free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious harm to employees. In light of the pandemic, the OSHA has said that employers must follow the CDC’s guidelines on distancing guidelines, cleaning, and PPE to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees. The more safeguards an employer puts in place to prevent the spread of the disease, the less likely they are to fall foul of a lawsuit.
So far, approximately 4,000 complaints have been filed against employers who fail to provide workplaces that reduce the spread of Covid-19. OSHA has not issued any fines yet and has been pointing employers towards the CDC’s voluntary guidelines. However, they are investigating inspections of workplaces where an employee has died from coronavirus.
Many workers feel let down by OSHA like they do not have workers’ backs in this situation. While it is an unprecedented situation, the health and safety of people should be put over the interests of businesses. At the end of the day, everyone needs to be doing their best to prevent the spread of the disease, and unfortunately, many employers need the threat of accountability to do the right thing. That is why it is not enough to rely on CDC guidelines; workers need bodies like OSHA to regulate employers and issue penalties where necessary.
Workers struggle to prove liability
If an employee gets sick at work or dies, they or their family can seek monetary damages in the form of workers’ compensation. This is a type of insurance which covers some of the medical bills and lost wages of an employee injured at work. However, by taking workers’ compensation, an employee relinquishes the right to sue their employer.
In order to claim workers’ compensation for contracting Covid-19, the employee would have to prove that they caught it in the workplace. Because of the long incubation period and the high possibility of catching the disease anywhere, this would be very difficult indeed. However, if several employees at the same workplace came down with coronavirus, it may give a better workers’ compensation case.
Many workers are lawyering up and heading to court to sue their employers for not adequately protecting them in the pandemic.
Walmart is being sued by the family of an Illinois worker who died from Covid-19. The family alleges that the retailer didn’t put in place enough guidelines to protect its workers.
Smithfield Foods is being sued in Missouri after an outbreak of Covid-19 in Milan. Several employees got ill after not being provided with adequate PPE and being forced to work in close quarters. The staff were allegedly given bonuses if they worked while they were sick. The company also had not allowed testing and contact-tracing for employees who were exposed to the virus.
President Donald Trump seems to be prioritizing businesses over employee health. When two dozen meat processing plants shut down because of coronavirus outbreaks amongst its employees, President Trump said he would order these facilities to remain open and sign an executive order which would protect these plants from liability if sick workers were to sue. It seems that the government is disinterested in companies making the right decision to protect their employees and their customers from the disease.
Businesses looking to limit liability
The U.S Chamber of Commerce has requested that Congress limit liability for employers who follow CDC guidelines. They say there are no other guidelines out there to follow, and employers are doing the best they can in unprecedented times. Employers need to have the confidence to reopen without the worry of lawsuits.
President Donald Trump wants to sign executive orders to allow businesses to reopen without the cloud of liability handing over them. Democrats, on the other hand, are trying to increase OSHA enforcement to allow safe working conditions. They are issuing a bill for OSHA to issue an emergency standard for each company to have Covid-19 exposure and control plans. Millions of health care workers, grocery store workers, and food servers are exposed to the virus every single day. Protecting them from contracting coronavirus will reduce the spread of the pandemic.