Can You Be Held Liable If You Get Someone Sick with the novel coronavirus?
Can companies be held liable if their employees fall ill with the coronavirus? Is there a legal action that an employee can take if his employer failed to comply with health regulations and putting proper protections in place?
To combat COVID-19, companies across the country have shuttered operations, required employees to work remotely, and limited services and business hours.
As these companies—and the ones that haven’t been as quick to take action—face an uncertain financial future, they also face the possibility that their workers will contract the coronavirus and hold them accountable for not putting proper protections in place.
“That is something that is on everyone’s minds,” says Jennifer Scharf, a partner at The Coppola Firm in Amherst, New York, who is advising employer clients on how to handle the coronavirus. “This COVID-19 is really unprecedented, so it’s hard to give any hard and fast rules. We don’t have much of an equivalent to compare it to.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause, employers are required to create a hazard-free workspace that may be causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to staff.
While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not released specific standards covering COVID-19, Michelle Strowhiro, a partner in the Los Angeles office of McDermott Will & Emery, contends that employers could face risks. Especially if they don’t take steps to protect their workspace and ensure there is no exposure to individuals who may have contracted the virus.
Both Scharf and Strowhiro recommend that employers communicate best practices to employees, as well as reiterate existing workplace rules and outline any temporary regulations related to health and safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
If companies need their workers to continue coming to work, Scharf says they can require additional medical information from employees and mandate that they stay home if they have a fever or other symptoms. Employers can use additional screening tools. They can inquire about travel to areas impacted by COVID19 to help identify employees who may be asymptomatic. And obviously, eliminate any work-related travel if it’s not absolutely essential.