If you’re sick, stay home! That’s the advice from public health officials about the new coronavirus (and any other illness floating around out there). But what does that mean in practical terms for workers and employers? Right now, there are more questions than answers, but OPB’s “Think Out Loud” spoke with an employment lawyer and a labor leader to find out what people should be thinking about.
The new coronavirus is spreading across the Pacific Northwest. Here some basic things to know:
• Coronavirus is more severe and more contagious than the flu. Take it seriously but don’t panic.
• The elderly and immune-compromised are most at-risk, but everyone can get sick.
• If you are sick stay home, self-quarantine and call your doctor.
• Practice social distancing. Avoid large gatherings, or small gatherings in tight spaces. At-risk people and people with underlying conditions should stay at home.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Hand sanitizer is a backup option.
• Cough into a sleeve. Wash hands after coughing. Avoid touching your face.
• Sterilize things you touch often, like computers, phones, keys, and tablets.
• If you have prescriptions, call your doctor and ask for a 3-month supply in case of drug shortages.
Using Family Leave
There’s an important distinction between protected leave and paid leave. Protected leave means that you can’t get fired for taking it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will get paid. The Oregon Sick Leave law that took effect in 2016 requires employers with 10 or more employees to provide their employees with up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year. Employers with fewer than 10 employees must provide up to 40 hours of unpaid, protected sick time for their employees each year. This Oregon law does allow employees to use this time in the event of school or workplace closures due to a public health emergency, even if they are not sick themselves.
The Oregon Family Leave Act has some protections that go further than the federal Family Medical Leave Act, but when we’re talking about extended absences from work, we are mostly talking about unpaid leave.
“I don’t think anyone wants a situation where the economic security of families across Oregon is at risk because of this virus, and I think there’s a real chance that that could happen,” said Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU Local 503, the biggest union in the state.
Before there were any reported cases of the virus in the U.S., some employers were thinking about how to handle employees returning from China or Italy or other countries with reported cases. Should they ask those people not to come to work for two weeks? The same question applies to people who have been exposed to the virus here in Oregon.
“It’s a sticky situation, a little bit tricky,” said Sean Ray, an employment and labor attorney with Barran Liebman. “For the employees who can’t work from home … and they can’t avail themselves of the sick leave laws in this state because they aren’t actually sick … definitely consider paying those individuals if you’re going to isolate them and basically do an employer quarantine of that person at their their house.”
Unger points out that many workers do not have the option of working from home. People who work in schools or nursing homes, for example, need to be physically present to care for others. And, in some cases, that could put them at risk for contracting the virus.
“We need to make sure that we’re working together to get them the gear they need and the safety precautions they need to be able to do their work and take care of the folks who may get sick,” Unger said.
There’s still a lot that’s unknown about the new coronavirus and what it will mean for the workplace. Both Unger and Ray said they have been getting a lot of questions that basically boil down to: How can people stay safe while not compromising their economic security?
Editor’s note: Some employees at OPB are represented by SEIU. Barran Liebman is an underwriter of OPB.