Important April 30 update: Please see this post for the most recent answers to questions such as “Do I have to go back to work if I am pregnant or have a health condition?” and “Can my employer make me return to work if I don’t have child care?”
A lot of “good guy/bad guy” narratives are emerging about how employers are treating employees during the coronavirus pandemic. Here are a couple of first-person accounts I’ve received:
Q: I’m working at a dispensary. My boss has us doing curbside orders. He doesn’t want to shut down; he still has bills to pay. He says if we want to leave, then we can, but he can’t guarantee we will still have our jobs. What should I do? I have a child.
Q: Our state’s governor recently issued a stay-at-home order and has restricted operation of nonessential businesses. My friend’s job requires him to enter homes, some belonging to hoarders, and clear out trash and junk. He is concerned about potentially being exposed to COVID-19 or carrying it to his family.
The business is not essential under the governor’s order, but the owner said he would allow his workers to “volunteer” to continue working. Those who refuse are not being paid. What’s more, because they are not being furloughed or let go, they can’t apply for unemployment relief.
A: Earn a living, or protect you and yours? It’s not as simple as finding another job; unless you can do remote work, most current hiring is happening in delivery and health care, where risk of exposure to the virus is high. And with record numbers of people newly out of work, competition is stiffer than ever.
Fortunately, some new federal laws enacted in response to the pandemic may help make those choices easier for employees and employers.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires businesses with fewer than 500 employees to provide paid sick leave and paid family leave to workers affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic, such as parents of kids whose school or care options are unavailable. But there are loopholes; an employer with fewer than 50 employees might not have to grant paid leave if it can show that its business would be jeopardized by doing so.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has “supercharged” unemployment benefits, according to Declan Leonard, business law partner with Berenzweig Leonard. The CARES Act adds $600 to weekly unemployment checks and expands unemployment to cover more workers. It also includes tax benefits and other support to make layoffs a more palatable option for employers.
Some states are adjusting unemployment requirements in response to the pandemic as well; call your state’s employment agency or visit its website for more information and to apply.
And if you’re not being paid, or even if your employer refuses to officially lay off or furlough you, Leonard recommends that you still try to apply for benefits. “Where filing for unemployment has historically been a last resort, I now think it should be a first resort for employers and employees alike,” he says.
Finally, employers that want to stay open and support employees might consider a small-business loan under the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program. If used for qualified purposes, such as covering payroll and benefits, the loan may be converted to a grant and forgiven. For that reason, Leonard encourages employers to take advantage of the loan program now so they’re ready to resume operations once the current crisis has eased: “The government’s coming in here to give you a lifeline so you can live to fight another day,” he said.