The coronavirus pandemic our country is going through right now is unprecedented – people are sick, people are dying, and everyone is scared. Different states are battling the coronavirus in different ways as businesses struggle to survive. Here in Denver, as of March 24, the mayor has declared a state of local disaster, pursuant to C.R.S. § 24-33.5-701, et seq., and ordered all individuals to STAY AT HOME and shelter in place. This means that all non-essential businesses should close, unless they can operate with employees from home and/or with appropriate “social distancing.” In particular:
“All businesses with a facility in Denver, except Essential Businesses as defined below in Section 6, are required to cease all activities at facilities located within Denver, except Minimum Basic Operations, as defined in Section 6. For clarity, businesses may also continue operations consisting exclusively of employees or contractors performing activities at their own residences (e.g., working from home). All Essential Businesses are asked to remain open. To the greatest extent feasible, Essential Businesses shall comply with Social Distancing Requirements as defined in Section 6, below, including by maintaining six-foot social distancing for both employees and members of the public, including, but not limited to, when any customers are standing in line.”
March 22 CDPHE Order.
If your business is one of those that will or can remain open, you may have some questions about your rights. First of all, you should understand that circumstances regarding the pandemic are changing as information becomes available and that this is new to everyone. Congress is expected to pass a bill to help both businesses and their employees, but new laws are likely to come in to effect.
Hopefully, you have a caring employer who is taking all the necessary precautions to keep their employees safe and to help you endure through this trying time. However, you may still have some questions and concerns about your rights and safety during this time.
Can my employer require me go to work during the coronavirus outbreak?
Unless you have a valid disability that qualifies under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), your employer can require you to come in to work. If you have health concerns, the best thing you can do is provide notice by talking to them and communicating regarding your concerns and your particular condition. However, if your business is one that was mandated to close and your employer remains open, and then fires you because you refuse to go to work, you may have a case for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Before doing anything, you should speak to your employer and communicate that you have good cause not to work because of a medical vulnerability you have and that you fear for your safety. If you make a good faith effort to resolve the situation and your employer still fires you, you can apply for unemployment and look into a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Can my employer require me to work if I need to care for a sick family member?
The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers to provide eligible employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave per year to care for yourself or family members, with continued health benefits. Employers must also allow employees to return to the same job (or one that is equivalent). See the Department of Labor website for all the eligibility requirements and details.
Is my employer required to provide safety equipment against the coronavirus?
There are OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) laws that protect you. The general duty clause from OSHA requires your employer to provide “a place of employment which (is) free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” Of course, your employer can’t eliminate the coronavirus from your workplace but it should make that environment as safe as reasonably possible. A lot of this will come down to them putting forth a “good faith effort” because safety equipment is in short supply at the moment. So, while a hospital is typically required to provide doctors and nurses with the masks, gowns, and even hazmat suits, a grocery store can get away with providing gloves and hand sanitizer if that is all they are able to get. However, in most cases, they shouldn’t prevent you from using additional safety equipment that you provide so long as it doesn’t interfere with your job.
Can I sue my employer if they require me to work and I get sick?
In most cases, probably not. Simply put, it is very difficult to prove how or where someone caught the coronavirus because, as of now, the virus hasn’t mutated very much. What that means is that most people who are sick in your area will have a very similar strain of the virus, so it’s next to impossible to trace. Remember, the burden of proof is on you to show that you not only caught the virus at work but that it was your employer’s fault.
However, if your employer knowingly puts you in a dangerous situation without required protection, or deliberately didn’t inform employees that they had been exposed, then you may have some recourse. Again, this entire situation is something the country and the courts haven’t dealt with much so there is a lot grey area to navigate. And the burden of proof will be still be on you.
I am Asian, Latino, African American, Caucasian, or a member of another race and my employer is treating me differently
Disparate treatment because of your race continues to be prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and is absolutely illegal. If you can prove that your employer has singled you out and treated you differently from the other employees — such as cutting your hours or making you wear a mask when no one else is required to — because of your race you may have a case for discrimination.
If I test positive for the coronavirus, can my employer tell the other employees?
No, your employer is required to maintain your privacy regarding any medical information. However, they can (and should) notify other employees that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus, or that there may otherwise be a health hazard, without disclosing your name.
 The FMLA applies to all public agencies, including local, State, and Federal employers, and local education agencies (schools); and private sector employers who employ 50 or more employees for at least 20 workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year – including joint employers and successors of covered employers. If you are working for business with fewer than 50 employees, they are not required to offer FMLA benefits.
 For further legal advice on this issue, consult an attorney knowledgeable in federal and/or state privacy matters. Civil rights attorneys, such as the author of this article, are not experts in privacy law.