The Coronavirus pandemic has hit the United States hard and the state of Georgia is one of the most affected states. On Friday, April 3, 2020, the Governor of the State of Georgia, Brian Kemp, approved a series of new regulations to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The measures he announced to protect citizens included a statewide shelter in place order through April 30, which may now be extended through May. The order calls for people to stay home but does allow for people to leave to obtain “essential services” or to perform “essential jobs”. Essential services can include buying food and medicine and seeking medical attention. Essential jobs can include tasks necessary for “minimal basic operations” and “critical infrastructure” of the state or for an array of businesses. Unfortunately, this “essential jobs” allowance has created a window for some employers to operate in semi-business-as-usual conditions that can put employees at risk of contagion in the workplace. However, employers do have additional responsibilities they need to fulfill to stay open and it’s important for workers to know them and avoid unnecessary exposure.
Companies that decide to remain open during the pandemic must adhere to a set of new workplace safety requirements in order to remain open. Companies who do not comply can be reported to the local sheriff’s office in the county where they operate the business. They will be inspected and if found in violation of the new safety regulations they may be shut down.
What are the new employer responsibilities?
One of the new responsibilities is to monitor employee health. Employers who remain open during the pandemic must regularly examine workers for symptoms of infection. If employers see signs of a fever, cough or other COVID-19 symptoms, they must send workers home or to the clinic immediately until the symptoms are gone. Employers must prevent people coming to work if they have a fever of over 100.4 degrees, cough, shortness of breath, or any other COVID-19 related symptoms.
In addition to monitoring and removing potentially infected employees, employers must also provide everyone on their team with a reasonable amount of personal protection. They must provide masks, gloves, hand sanitizer as well as plenty of soap and water for regular hand washing. Additional breaks for hygiene and the ability to maintain a distance of at least 6ft from other co-workers is also expected. Workers must be allowed to take breaks in spaces that allow for social distancing. For instance, some places are allowing employees to eat lunch in their cars rather than a small break room where they would be close to others.
Can Employees Refuse to Go to Work?
The COVID-19 has caused a lot of fear and panic in people and many essential workers are asking if they have the right to refuse to go to work, even if their employer is taking all of the precautions mandated by the new workplace regulations. The simple answer to this question is yes. Georgia is an “at will” state when it comes to employment which means that employees and employers can enter and exit an employment contract at will. This means that if you are an essential worker, you have the right to refuse to go to work. However employers are not required to hold jobs for workers should they refuse to go to work during the pandemic. Just like employees have the right to refuset to work, employers also have the right to terminate employees for any reason, except discrimination for race or gender.
Which jobs have the highest risk of infection?
According to the United States Department of Labor with the help of Business Insider, it analyzed the sectors that are most at risk of being infected in this pandemic. If your job falls under any of these categories and you are still being asked to work because you are an “essential worker” we recommend that you remain extra vigilant in making sure your employer complies with the new safety regulations. Essential jobs can include services not listed here so please check with your local authorities if you have any questions about whether or not your job falls under the “essential” category.
Medical Professionals and Emergency Services
All health and medical professionals in sectors such as (hospital personnel, physical therapists, chiropractors …) are at the top of the list with the highest risk of infection because they are exposed daily to people who are infected. Firefighters, ambulance drivers, and police officers are also on the front lines because they are public-facing workers and their jobs require them to come into close contact with people who need help and may not feel well because of known or unknown infection. Other jobs within these sectors can include cleaning and janitorial services among others who support these industries.
Couriers and supermarket staff, among others, perform essential work but their job functions may not allow them to maintain a distance of 6ft between themselves and others consistently. They are encouraged to take extra precautions with protective gear and hand washing.
While some travel services have remained open they have decreased in volume of operations because they put people in enclosed spaces. Subways, trains, buses, airplanes and other mass transportation industries facilitate the spread of infection but are still considered essential because they support other essential industries.
Catering industry and Fast Food Chains.
Many companies are allowing workers to work from home, but not all jobs have that flexibility built in. Restaurant, hospitality and bar workers cannot work remotely because they are customer facing jobs by definition. In these cases, companies are choosing to furlough or give employees the option to use vacation time to stay home. Some restaurants are choosing to stay open with limited functionality. Dining rooms are required to be closed yet many have remained open for pickup and drive through purchases.
Do I have the right to work from home?
In general, Georgia companies are not required to allow their employees to work from home, unless the government orders a quarantine. From that moment, employers would have to reach an agreement with their workers. Employees can however request to work from home and employers may choose to accept or decline. If companies do decide to make working from home an option, they must offer all the necessary materials so that the workers can carry out their work.
Advice from the Rohan Law Firm
Douglas Rohan, an expert in workers compensation in Georgia, advises all workers who feel that their health is in danger when going to work to call OSHA, the Department of Occupational Safety and Health, because it has a general duty clause that obliges all companies to offer their workers a place free of danger that may cause serious damage to health and safety.
“OSHA is a department of the United States government that is responsible for supervising and conducting the appropriate reviews for each workplace. They supervise and make the necessary reports and then communicate that the supervisors, bosses and, ultimately, the company is not respecting the health laws of each of the workers who are in the company”.
Lawyer Rohan – Rohan Law PC