Every employee deserves a safe workplace. With the recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, many employees are rightfully afraid to go into work.
But what obligations do employers have to make a workplace safe? And what options do you have if an employer refuses to remove hazards? Our New Jersey employment lawyers look at the relevant regulations.
A Workplace Must Be Sanitary
New Jersey has set a sanitation standard that sets minimum sanitation standards for workplaces. These standards cover waste disposal, water supply, and the provision of hand washing facilities.
This last one is key, as washing hands is central to preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. An employer must provide tepid running water, hand soap, and either a dryer or hand towels. Failure to provide this type of sanitation is a violation of the health and safety regulations, and you should report them to the state.
To be safe, employers should also provide hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for employees to use, especially with this virus. However, the relevant standards do not require them, which means an employer is not in violation for failing to provide them.
Employers Should Ask Sick Employees to Stay Home
This virus is passed typically from person to person. If an employee is feeling sick, then an employer should encourage him or her to stay home. Remember to follow all relevant laws related to sick leave, including provisions in your own contract, handbook, or manual.
In some cases, an employer might have legal standing to place an employee on leave if they pose a “significant risk of substantial harm” to other employees. This is the so-called “direct threat” defense. The EEOC has provided guidance for a flu pandemic already, and this guidance is relevant for the coronavirus. The guidance says an employer can send a person home if they display influenza-like symptoms during a pandemic.
However, it’s not obvious that employers have a legal obligation to put that employee on leave. Instead, the right is an exception to laws that prohibit discrimination based on disability.
Few Safety Standards Apply Directly to Coronavirus
Many federal safety standards were drafted to respond to hazards at the time of drafting. For example, OSHA has a safety standard regarding exposure to blood and other infectious materials. As OSHA acknowledges, however, it does not relate directly to respiratory secretions implicated in transmission of coronavirus. It does provide a framework for tackling materials that could transmit coronavirus, but that compliance is probably voluntary.
As this virus continues to spread, regulatory agencies might adopt new regulations to address it. Therefore, it is critical for employers to stay on top of the laws. This is a fast-moving situation, and we expect both the federal and state governments to step up to the plate and put new regulations in place with dizzying speed.
For help, please contact a New Jersey employment law attorney at Sattiraju & Tharney, LLP today. We have represented both employees and employers in lawsuits, and we can advise you of your rights and responsibilities.
To speak with a member of our team and learn more about employer responsibility for safety in New Jersey, please contact us today.