Workers Fighting ‘Uphill Battle’ for Safety in the Workplace
By Space Coast Daily // June 9, 2020
The global COVID-19 pandemic has had drastic effects on the lives and livelihoods of millions in the United States, with changes to everyday life that do not appear to be changing in the coming weeks.
Despite ongoing cases of the novel coronavirus, a handful of states are beginning to lessen or remove restrictions placed on public places and businesses in efforts to prevent the spread of the infectious disease.
Following weeks of coronavirus-related lockdowns across the country, businesses like hair salons and restaurants are starting to return to a sense of normalcy in states including Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
However, employees of these newly opened businesses are wondering how their employers can ensure a safe workplace with active cases. They also wonder who will be held liable if they contract the virus while working.
Business owners are having similar questions about how they can run their businesses while also adhering to various safety measures.
There is also the component that workers could be exposed to a virus that spreads through sometimes asymptomatic or presymptomatic infection.
With new requirements, standards, and health guidelines to follow seemingly every week, workers are questioning how their safety and rights will be prioritized in such an unknown and volatile time.
As the uncertainty continues, workers may have to navigate the complications of exposure to COVID-19 while on the job where protections fall flat. This may lead to workers pursuing legal action to protect themselves and others from workplaces that are unfit to be open in current conditions.
Lack of Safety Guidelines from Opening States
As states begin to open, there are surprisingly limited regulations and guidelines for how businesses can open and operate safely during the pandemic.
With what little regulations there are, many do not travel past state lines. Not only does this change how businesses in various industries work, it can also create difficulties for states when they try to create cohesive plans with neighboring states.
While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a national workplace safety entity, requires employers to establish a workplace that is free from hazards that could cause death or serious harm for their employees, they have not listed specific ways for workplaces to do so.
Besides advising businesses to follow the guidelines released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), OSHA does not offer or enforce other guidelines.
This leaves workers feeling vulnerable and dismissed despite rising concerns over safety.
Now, states that are phasing in the opening of various businesses are advertising voluntary guidelines such as six-foot distancing, the disinfection of surfaces, face masks, and barriers within businesses.
When workers issue complaints against their employers who fail to provide or maintain these levels of safety due to their voluntary nature, OSHA does not issue citations or fines. Instead, they point to voluntary guidelines of protection and end there.
Without serious safety guidelines, workers are worried about possible exposure to the novel coronavirus. For some businesses, the current model of limited services such as take out for restaurants or limited patron accessibility can make it easier to monitor social distancing and the cleansing of touched surfaces.
However, with more patrons allowed into a businesses, employees may not be able to properly social distance or protect themselves while still providing the service that particular business offers.
“When safety guidelines are considered optional, there is even more risk of infection for workers who cannot afford to leave their job at an opening business.” explained Attorney Gary Christmas of Christmas Injury Lawyers.
“Some states are creating their own guidelines and regulations to protect workers, but many fear it may not be enough to curb possible infection as people are allowed to move around more freely through businesses.”
Hurdles with Proving Liability
Some workers are not only worried about the repercussions of opening businesses too soon, but they are also worried about the lack of options around how they could prove liability if they were to contract COVID-19 while working.
Currently, workers and their family can seek monetary damages if they get sick or die through workers compensation, therefore giving up the ability to sue, or by pursuing a legal case against the business.
For workers compensation, it can be difficult to win a claim because the worker must prove they were infected with COVID-19 on the job. This can be difficult during a vast pandemic with infrequent access to testing and little information about COVID-19.
Then, if a person is awarded workers compensation, they may have difficulty pursuing a legal case for the negligence of an employer if their illness gets worse or ends in death.
If a worker or their family chooses to sue rather than apply for workers compensation, it can be a complicated and drawn out process.
This process doesn’t account for the increased number of lawsuits stemming from the same pandemic that could clutter the court system. With the somewhat limited options of suing or filing a workers compensation claim, the burden of proof is essentially put onto the worker if they contract COVID-19 in the workplace.
Even in states that are pursuing options to shift the burden of proof onto the employer for the sickness or death of an employee from coronavirus, there are still legal complications barring this decision from being made public.
How Labor Could be Impacted by Covid-19
While testing capabilities and supplies for treating COVID-19 have become more accessible across the country, the pandemic continues to impact millions of Americans in one way or another.
As some businesses are preparing to slowly open back up, some are trying to envision how labor could be impacted by coronavirus in current times and into the future.
Essential businesses have already adopted procedures like temperature checks before shifts, requiring masks at all times from customers and staff, and barriers to encourage social distancing.
While these businesses may have the structure set in place to deal with the ending of lockdown requirements, some are wondering how long these safety measures could last for.
While normal life may seem far off, workers and unions across the country are asking the difficult questions to ensure that their rights and safety are prioritized.
Understanding how states will limit businesses in favor of workers rights is a difficult component to address, but one that many are looking to for answers before they return to their place of employment.
How to Ensure Your Rights and Safety are Protected
The situation involving the global pandemic continues to change and its impact can be felt across many industries. Whether you are an essential employee or a worker going back to work after weeks of lockdown procedures keeping you from your job, you deserve to work in a safe environment without the immediate fear of infection by COVID-19.
With limited options for holding your employer accountable, whether you contract COVID-19 at your workplace or there is a lack of safety measures in place, you may benefit from reaching out to an attorney to discuss your rights.
An experienced workers compensation and personal injury lawyer could help you understand your situation and what you could do moving forward in a legal case against a negligent employer.
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