The coronavirus pandemic might be the biggest threat to employees — and the economy — since the 2008 recession. Are you protected if your employer cuts back your hours or lays you off?
If you need time off because you or a loved one is affected by coronavirus, or if your place of work or child’s school is closed, you may get up to two weeks’ paid sick leave under a proposed law that passed the House on March 13 and is expected to clear the Senate. As currently drafted, the law covers employers with fewer than 500 employees but exempts smaller employers who can prove economic hardship.
Some large employers are adopting policies to respond to the pandemic. On top of existing paid sick leave, Walmart will provide up to two weeks’ paid leave for ill or quarantined employees. Darden Restaurants, the parent of Olive Garden, will permanently provide paid sick leave to all hourly employees. State and local governments may also provide limited paid sick leave, and you might be eligible for state disability leave if you’re sick with coronavirus.
Even if you don’t get paid sick leave, you might qualify for up to 12 weeks’ job-protected time off under the Family Medical Leave Act if you or a family member have coronavirus. You might also be able to use accrued paid sick days to care for a family member. Your employer cannot retaliate against you because you used paid sick days.
What if your company is on life support or a casualty of coronavirus? What happens if your job disappears or your company goes out of business?
Hourly workers are likelier than salaried workers to be laid off, and food service workers could be among the earliest job casualties. Recruiters advise workers to try to be seen as indispensable while looking for other work. Smaller manufacturing and construction companies could also lay off workers because of travel and export restrictions.
If you’re laid off temporarily, if your job is eliminated, or if your hours are substantially reduced due to a slowdown, you could be eligible for state unemployment. These benefits provide partial wage replacement to workers who lose their jobs or have their hours reduced through no fault of their own.
Federal law gives states flexibility to adjust unemployment benefits to assist with coronavirus situations. Some states might pay benefits if an employer temporarily closes due to the virus. Others might pay benefits to workers who are quarantined and expected to return to work, who leave due to risk of exposure or infection, or who need to care for a family member. You don’t have to quit your job to receive unemployment benefits, but if you’re on sick leave or family leave and are receiving pay, you won’t be considered unemployed and won’t be eligible for unemployment insurance.
Workers temporarily unemployed but expected to return to work within a few weeks aren’t required to actively seek work each week, but they must remain able, available and ready to work for each week of benefits claimed and must meet other eligibility criteria.
If you work for a large company, your employer may be required to warn you before terminating you. The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act requires 60 days’ advance written notice in cases of plant closings and mass layoffs if certain conditions are met. If your employer doesn’t give you the required notice, you might be entitled to damages for back pay and benefits, depending on how many days’ notice you actually received.
You might be protected by WARN if your job loss occurs as part of a plant closing or a mass layoff of workers because of coronavirus. The company must meet several criteria, including having 100 or more full-time workers who have worked more than six months for more than 20 hours per week or employing 100 or more workers with a combined 4,000 hours a week. WARN protects hourly and salaried workers, including managerial and supervisory employees.
If you’re part of a unionized workforce and your company plans to close facilities due to coronavirus, a collective bargaining agreement may provide you with additional protections, including paid time off and unemployment benefits. The union should ensure that the company has met its contractual obligations to you before your job is terminated.
As consumers and businesses cut back spending, independent contractors are especially hard hit. Work is drying up, but they can’t collect unemployment insurance because they’re not employees. A new California law that reclassified many gig workers as employees is being challenged by some companies, and while others have implemented the law, they did so too recently for these new employees to be eligible for unemployment.
Lawmakers are calling on ride-sharing and food delivery companies to provide a safety net for drivers and couriers who become ill. Uber, Lyft, and Instacart have announced plans to provide some compensation for workers diagnosed or quarantined as a result of the virus. Postmates is creating a fund to assist delivery workers with health care costs related to the coronavirus.
More to Come?
Employers and lawmakers alike are grappling with issues raised by the coronavirus. With so many unknowns, it’s difficult to predict if further protections will be offered to workers laid off because of the disease. As you follow developments at the state and national levels, remember that your most important job is to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Sonya Goodwin, Partner at Sauer & Wagner LLP of Los Angeles, represents employees and employers in a wide range of claims, including wage and hour violations, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract. Sonya also advises clients on all facets of employment law. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 712-8110.