Three weeks ago, I offered my first column regarding COVID-19. I never envisioned that we would be where we are today.
Over the last week, I have fielded phone calls from employers and employees worried about layoffs, unemployment, personal health and safety, and use of leave time. Workers and employers are being overwhelmed on multiple fronts.
I thought it might make sense to try to answer some of your basic questions. I am writing this on Thursday, and I cannot predict where we will be on Sunday or Monday.
First off, the primary goal over the last week has been to find a means to continue paying employees. Lost income and shuttered businesses pose the greatest societal threat once we get past the health effects of this insidious virus.
For employers who have been forced to take the step of laying off employees due to lost revenues, particularly in the hospitality industries, plans need to be made to care for those employees. First, employees must be encouraged to file claims immediately for unemployment benefits. Employees can do so online at www.ctdol.state.ct.us/UI-online/index.htm.
The next key issue for employees who are laid off is continuation of health insurance. Typically, health insurers will not cover employees who are no longer actively working. I can envision a scenario where government action mandates that this be waived, but it has not happened yet. In that case, employees will be provided with a COBRA notice allowing them to continue coverage. However in that scenario, the employee will be responsible for the entire monthly premium which can be as high as $2500 a month for a family plan.
It is possible for employers to negotiate with their health insurance providers to continue coverage for employees until the furloughs cease, hopefully by the summer. It would make business sense for insurers to allow this in order to continue collecting premiums for their products. Again, this would seem to be an area where governmental action would be required to allow for payment of premiums from a government source, particularly in areas where business revenues have completely dried up.
The plan passed by Congress last week will likely provide relief payments of $1000 to adults and $500 to children. Those payments could be used to pay for health insurance premiums if needed. The better means of continuing coverage however would be to send direct payments to insurers at negotiated reduced rates for the duration of the pandemic.
For those businesses that continue to operate, concerns have been raised about those employees who come to work exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. The question is whether employers can inquire about the condition and send an ill employee home from work. The answer is “yes.” Doing so would not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Businesses can also suggest that employees displaying symptoms be required to work from home if that is an option. The EEOC has said that “tele-work” is an effective infection control strategy.
Employees who are concerned about exposure to COVID-19 can only refuse to come to work if they believe that they are in “imminent danger” of contracting the disease. This would be a difficult standard to prove, but employers should be taking all precautions necessary to ensure the safety of their employees including the provision of personal protective equipment and ample hand-sanitation resources.