The new coronavirus’s spread is taking the relationship between employers and their workers into new territory—one in which both sides are trying to sort out their rights and responsibilities in containing the outbreak.
Caught between trying to keep the virus out of their workplaces and minimizing business disruptions, employers are issuing all sorts of edicts unthinkable just weeks ago, from worker quarantines to officewide remote work and even personal-travel reporting requirements.
Many employees, meanwhile, are wondering just how far their bosses have to go to protect them from the outbreak’s spread, and what calls go too far.
To better understand what is permissible—and required—in confronting a public-health crisis in the workplace, The Wall Street Journal consulted employment lawyers and other workplace experts. The answers often lie somewhere in the murky balance between the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which aims to safeguard individuals’ privacy, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, designed to protect workers’ safety. But the body of labor rules and regulations suggest it’s wise to stick to the following guidelines, the experts say.
Here are answers to some of the most common questions from employees:
Can my employer cancel my vacation time and make me work instead?
In most workplaces, yes. Vacation time isn’t guaranteed under federal law, and most employers are within their rights to cancel a vacation and require workers to return to the job, says Kenneth G. Dau-Schmidt, a professor of labor and employment law at Indiana University Bloomington. The exception is if an employee is covered by a union contract or specific employment agreement that includes certain time-off protections, he says.
Still, most bosses know that pulling a vacation is bound to be an unpopular move, a reason many are loath to do it unless an emergency requires it. “People can get upset if vacations are canceled,” Prof. Dau-Schmidt says. “That would be the major limit on it.”
What if my boss tells me to cancel my personal travel plans. Is that legal?
Employers can’t dictate how you spend your personal time, even if they do make a recommendation against travel to certain regions, says Roberta Matuson, an executive coach and author of “Evergreen Talent: A Guide to Hiring and Cultivating a Sustainable Workforce.”
Does the company have to pay for a canceled trip?
If a boss insists on an employee cutting a trip, go ahead and ask for reimbursement. Some employers will see that as a reasonable request. But legally, they aren’t required to pay unless an employment contract specifically calls for it, Mr. Dau-Schmidt says.
I really feel uncomfortable about commuting into work and increasing my risk of exposure. Do I have the right to work from home?