The COVID-19 pandemic has raised novel legal issues regarding employment law. One of the most common questions that Pittsburgh employment lawyers are receiving is whether they must return to work in light of the pandemic. Below, our Pittsburgh employment lawyer explains your legal rights and obligations.
The requirement to Return to Work
The general rule is that if your workplace has reopened and you have been recalled to work, you must return to work. If you refuse to return to work, this may be considered job abandonment. Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state, meaning that your employer can generally terminate your employment for any reason as long as it is not illegal. However, there may be some exceptions, including:
If You Are Sick
If you are sick from COVID-19 or have underlying medical conditions that may be worsened if you return to work and develop COVID-19, you may be able to stay home from work until you recover under CARES Act protections, FMLA, and local protections. However, this will depend on several key factors, including:
- The nature of your medical condition
- The degree of risk you would be subject to if you returned to work
- Which law you are seeking coverage from
- How many employees your employer has
Because this determination is based on your particular circumstances, it is recommended that you consult with a Pittsburgh employment law firm for information about your specific case.
If You Have an Employment Contract
If you have a written employment agreement with your employer that provides information about the pandemic, stay-at-home orders, or other relevant information that provides guidance for this type of situation that says you do not have to return to work under those conditions, your employer must follow the terms of this agreement.
If you have a written employment contract, it is highly recommended that you consult with a knowledgeable employment law attorney who can review your contract before you indicate your intent not to return to work.
If You Are Part of a Union
If you are part of a union and have a collective bargaining agreement in place, you may want to speak to your union representative about your rights related to that agreement. If any of your coworkers are worried about health implications of returning to work, your union may be able to get your employer to agree to make changes in the workplace to make it safer, such as implementing social distancing guidelines, increasing cleaning procedures, providing masks and other PPE, or taking other measures to protect workers to help allay your fears.
Potential Unemployment Benefits
If you ultimately decide not to return to work due to COVID-19 related reasons, you may be able to qualify for unemployment benefits. Under the CARES Act, special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits became available to help workers who became sick because of COVID-19, were caring for a sick family member, or were caring for children whose school or daycare was closed due to COVID-19. Updates to this program are expected, but you can check with a Pittsburgh employment lawyer for more information on this or the possibility of negotiating a severance agreement or contract work with your former employer.