The coronavirus has upended the idea of what makes a workplace unsafe. Suddenly, it has become dangerous to merely work in close proximity to coworkers and face the constant exposure of new people and customers. If anyone is infected with the virus, it can spread in the workplace and get other workers sick.
Workers’ compensation only goes so far: People infected with coronavirus can face life-threatening complications and could die. Avoiding a workplace that has been made unsafe by the coronavirus is the best option.
But many businesses – including the meat processing plants in St. Joseph, Missouri, that have been epicenters for the spread of the virus – are opening back up.
Can workers called into work refuse to go for fear of their safety?
As Businesses Open from Coronavirus Lockdown, Safety Issues Abound
As states itch to end their coronavirus lockdowns to let businesses reopen, workers face an agonizing decision: Go back to work to earn their wage, or stay home to avoid contracting the coronavirus.
Some businesses pose more of a threat than others. For example, some industries have worksites that allow for social distancing and provide personal protective equipment, like masks, for workers. Others, however, do not.
The meat processing industry – a huge employer in St. Joseph and the rest of western Missouri – has emerged as one of the least safe places to work. Meat processing plants have become hotspots for the coronavirus, even in rural counties that have few other cases. But the importance of these plants on the food supply chain has led the president to sign an executive order to keep them open, despite the risks to the workers in them.
Workers Face an Agonizing Decision
When these dangerous businesses reopen and demand their employees return to work, those workers can face an agonizing decision. If they go back to work, they risk contracting the coronavirus and potentially spreading it to their families. If they refuse to go back to work, they risk getting fired, losing their health insurance and unemployment benefits.
Workers’ Rights When Facing an Unsafe Environment
Federal regulations give workers some rights when they are faced with an unsafe working environment. There are numerous provisions of federal law that require employers to keep the workplace safe and comply with health standards.
Whether those health standards have to come from statutes passed by Congress or regulations made by government agencies, as opposed to generalized social distancing guidelines, is a topic for debate.
However, under 29 C.F.R. § 1977.12(b)(2), workers faced with a dangerous working environment can refuse to work if:
- The employer has been told to eliminate the danger, but it has not been done,
- The refusal to work is in a good faith belief that working is imminently dangerous,
- A reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury, and
- There is not time to correct the danger through the regular enforcement mechanism, like an OSHA inspection or lawsuit.
If all of these requirements are satisfied, workers are supposed to:
- Request the employer to either correct the danger or assign them to other work,
- Tell the employer they will not work until the danger is corrected, and
- Stay at the jobsite until the employer orders them to leave.
If all of these steps are taken, and government agencies and courts agree that COVID-19 makes a particular workplace sufficiently dangerous, employers are not allowed to discriminate against workers.
Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at the Smith Law Office in St. Joseph
The coronavirus has put workers’ rights into uncharted territory. Discussing your options with a lawyer is essential. Reach out to the personal injury lawyers and workers’ compensation attorneys at the Smith Law Office in St. Joseph by contacting them online or calling them at (816) 875-9373.