Back To Work: Workers' Comp, Unemployment And Safety

Three experts weigh in on employee protections as more states reopen for business.
Posted at 5:30 PM, May 08, 2020

As more states reopen for business, we wanted to explore what rights employees have when they're asked to go back to work. So we asked three questions to three experts. 

Question No. 1: If I get COVID-19 at work, am I entitled to workers' compensation?

Debbie Berkowitz, worker safety and health program director, the National Employment Law Project: "Workers' comp is a state-by-state system. And every state has a different law. And I know it's very hard in some states, if you have an occupational illness and your employer contests it, to show that it was work-related. The burden becomes on the worker. So there are states moving, so I bet in the next couple of weeks, you're going to see more states moving to cover COVID-19 at work." 

Alexia Fernández Campbell, workers rights reporter, The Center for Public Integrity: "States like California have made it very generous. They just passed a law saying that no, anyone who gets COVID-19 and was working automatically is going to get workers' compensation, and there's no way around it." 

You've probably seen this lately: retail workers attacked by customers. A customer sprays Lysol in a cashier's eye; a guard at a Family Dollar store is killed for denying entry to someone not wearing a mask. Which leads us to our second question: Are companies obligated to protect workers from challenging customers who don't want to follow the rules?

Richard Roth, labor attorney, The Roth Law Firm: "The general rule in any type of law is that if you don't know something's going to happen, if you don't have knowledge, you are not liable, so therefore employers are probably not going to be held liable if something unfortunate happens at a moment's notice in the office or at work."

Fernández Campbell: "Employers don't have an obligation to protect workers from customers who are being difficult or, you know, I mean, if they attack them, they need to call police. If someone's hurt, they do have that obligation, but they have no other obligation to protect them from COVID-19, from customers who are not social-distancing or not wearing masks." 

And our last question: If I make more money from unemployment than my regular salary, do I need to go back to work?

Fernández Campbell: "You're still going to have to go back to work. If the job opens up again, you can't refuse to work because you're making more money."

Roth: "Your unemployment is supposed to be in lieu of your salary. If you're making a salary, then get up off your couch and get back there and go to work. That's the bottom line."

Cat Sandoval, Newsy, Chicago.