Can You Refuse to Come to Work in the Midst of a Pandemic?
And Can Your Employer Fire You If You Do?
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as some workers self-quarantine and adjust to working from home, others are continually asked to put their health on the line to keep essential services running—including warehouse and mail delivery workers, grocery store employees, utility and sanitation workers, transportation workers, and healthcare professionals.
And with a severe shortage of personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks, face shields, and gowns, essential employees often feel that coming to work means taking an unacceptable risk of exposure.
But can you refuse to come to work to avoid the risk of contracting COVID-19—and if you do, is your employer allowed to fire you or retaliate against you?
The rules, laws, and recommendations in this area are constantly shifting. But as of this writing, here’s what we know.
Your protections under existing OSHA regulations
Under pre-existing OSHA regulations, you can refuse to participate in work if the situation meets these three criteria:
- Doing so would put you in immediate danger of injury or death.
- You’ve already informed your employer of the risk and they’ve done nothing about it.
- There isn’t time to go through the proper OSHA channels to get the problem resolved.
The problem is that under current law, the danger of contracting coronavirus doesn’t rise to the level of “imminent life-threatening danger” for most workers. The circumstances matter, however.
For instance, if there has been a confirmed case of COVID-19 at your workplace, you might have more standing to refuse to come to work under OSHA regulations.
Or, as another example, being asked to work directly with infected patients without personal protective equipment may rise to the level of “imminent danger”—especially if you have an underlying condition that makes you particularly vulnerable to the virus.
However, if there has been no evidence of exposure at your workplace—or if there has, but there’s no way you could have come in contact with infected people—you may have more difficulty proving an imminent threat.
What if you have an underlying medical condition?
Older workers and those with underlying health conditions are at increased risk of dying if infected with COVID-19. If you have a qualifying disability that makes you vulnerable, you may have added protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Under the ADA, people with disabilities are entitled to have reasonable accommodations made for them at work, including unpaid leave—which may protect you if you choose not to risk coronavirus exposure by coming to work.
These scenarios have not been tested in court, however, as this situation is very new. It is difficult to predict how any individual case might play out.
Are you concerned about coronavirus exposure at work?
If so, consult with an experienced Pennsylvania employment lawyer.
The legal landscape for worker protections during the coronavirus pandemic is constantly changing, due to updated public health guidelines and new legislation being passed through Congress.
If you currently work on the front lines, we can answer your legal questions and help you navigate your options and rights for staying safe at work.
The information provided here does not constitute legal advice. It is intended for general purposes only. If you have questions about a specific legal issue, you should speak to an attorney.