Is the fear of going to work covered? Maybe.
While many jobs can be done from a distance, and some can wait until the economy gets better, some jobs are essential. Healthcare workers, first responders, grocery and pharmacy clerks all have to go to work despite their risk of contracting COVID-19. While anyone paying attention probably has some anxiety, what about those too scared to leave home? Do any laws simply allow them to stay home? Well, maybe.
PTSD, ADA and FMLA
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to accommodate qualified workers with a disability. Is the fear of going to work in the coronavirus age a disability? The answer may depend on how the issue presents. A worker who has been to work and spent the day passing near sneezing, coughing customers may very well fear she has been exposed. The experience could have been traumatic and returning to work may trigger post-traumatic-stress-disorder or PTSD. PTSD is a disability and if the worker is diagnosed as having it, the employer will have to attempt to accommodate it.
A worker with PTSD may also qualify for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). An employer faced with an employee’s PTSD diagnosis and doctor’s orders keeping the employee out of the workplace has few options. A similar issue exists for workers’ compensation, but depending on your state’s law, employees may have a more difficult time winning WC benefits.
So how does an employer handle the situation? Providing more safety equipment at work can help ease employee fear. For example, allowing employees to wear gloves and cover any exposed cuts or sores may reduce the risk of contagion and calm fears. Masks or gloves may help as well.
Even though things are moving very quickly, this may be a good time to conduct a safety assessment of the workplace to determine if other steps can be taken to prevent virus transmission. Are there risky processes that could be delayed until the contagion has passed or modified to reduce risk? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has guidance on its website at www.osha.gov.
Once these additional steps have been taken, let your employees know exactly what you have done and what protocols they must follow to keep themselves and your customers as safe as possible.
When all else fails, consider sweetening the pot. Yes, that means paying employees taking risks more. There are several options here. Give all employees who have to work a raise is one. Of course, once the emergency is over, they will still have the higher wage and cutting it will be difficult.
Another approach is to offer hazard pay. For example, federal prison guards at Oakdale prison in Louisiana are seeking a 25% increase in their salaries while they deal with a workplace where one inmate has already died form COVID-19 and 14 others have been confirmed to have the virus. According to a Washington Post report, 60 inmates are in quarantine in addition to 13 staff members who have tested positive and are now isolated at home.
In the gig economy, Instacart workers are seeking protective equipment and higher pay to keep delivering groceries to shut-in consumers. They have vowed to go on strike on March 30, if their demands are not met.
A combination of addressing safety concerns and tossing in some money should prove a successful approach to handling employee fear. Dealing with ADA, FMLA, and WC issues takes time and, by definition, those not at home are doing jobs that must be done now.