Businesses are slowly returning to normal from the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic. However, there are still a number of issues that are employers are facing. Of course, the most important issue for many employers is making sure that their business survives. Unfortunately, many businesses are also facing another issue: lawsuits. The potential liability for companies is continuing to accelerate. Here are the most likely lawsuits, administrative proceedings, and labor/employment law issues that employers will face in a post COVID-19 workplace.
1. WARN Act Lawsuits
As I stated in a previous article, the WARN Act generally requires employers with 100 or more employees to provide 60 days’ notice before the closure of a business or a mass layoff.
With the numerous layoffs that have occurred, accelerating bankruptcies, lockdowns continuing in many states, and businesses operating at reduced capacity or shutting down there will be a number of people that will not come back to work. Many people suspect that 40% of the layoffs will be permanent. 40 million people have lost their jobs. Unfortunately, the sheer number of layoffs means that there will be some layoffs that were not properly done. WARN Act lawsuits will accelerate.
2. Worker Safety Lawsuits and OSHA Complaints
As I stated in my post about essential workers, employees want to be safe. Many are filing OSHA complaints and lawsuits because they do not feel safe.
a. OSHA Complaints Are Increasing
OSHA has issued over 5,000 complaints related to COVID-19. There will be a number of OSHA complaints that will continue after businesses begin to reopen. Many employees are concerned about their safety especially those that are vulnerable or work in high risk jobs. Companies should expect that there will continue to be a number of OSHA complaints due to companies not following all the safety protocols that OSHA and the CDC have put out. As a reminder here are the protocols from OSHA and the CDC have been released:
There are two important steps to employee safety and COVID-19. First companies need to follow the guidance to the extent that it applies at their workplace. Second, companies need to communicate with their employees about the safety steps. Employees need to know the procedures that they need to follow. Employees also need to have channels that they can use to report workplace problems and safety concerns. Finally, employees that know that their company is taking steps so that they feel safe in the workplace are less likely to pursue lawsuits or complaints against a company.
b. Lawsuits About Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
The Smithfield plaintiffs’ suit was dismissed because they did not follow the proper channels for pursuing their claim (they should have gone through OSHA). While similar lawsuits are unlikely to succeed, companies should expect employees to continue to use all legal channels when they are not satisfied with the protective measures that their employer has taken.
3. Worker’s Compensation Lawsuits
Employers should expect a surge of worker’s compensation claims related to the coronavirus. It may be difficult for many employees to demonstrate that they got sick at work, but some states have made this easier through executive orders or other legislation that have basically enacted a rebuttable presumption that essential workers are presumed to have been infected while on the job. Bloomberg has a nice chart of which states have enacted such laws. For workers that are not essential or are not in one of the 8 states that have enacted such a law or regulation, it will be difficult to show that the employee actually got COVID-19 at work. This fact should reduce the number of successful claims in those states.
There continues to be conversations in Congress about protecting companies from liability, but nothing has passed yet.
4. NLRB Charges and Union Organizing
Union organizing and NLRB charges will continue to increase in the wake of COVID-19. Many unions have used the pandemic to strengthen their relationship with employees and seek to organize more employees. Many have been successful because employers have failed to take appropriate steps to protect employees or have not communicated with employees about the steps that they have taken.
As a reminder, in some prior posts I wrote about what employers can and cannot do in a union organizing campaign and how to respond to an NLRB charge.
a. Employee Walkout Issues
There will continue to be employee walkouts because of the coronavirus. Stories about employees walking out because of concerns about safety are everywhere. As COVID-19 continues to cause problems and potentially a second wave of the Coronavirus comes, employers may see more walkout issues. This may especially be the case for workers that are more concerned about the virus because they are more susceptible to suffering from a severe reaction from it. Employers should remember that walkouts are likely protected under both the OSH Act (which may protect workers that refuse to perform a job if they are in imminent danger) and the National Labor Relations Act (which protects concerted protected activities by employees).
5. Employee Recall Lawsuits
As businesses reopen, there are a number of issues where employers could get into trouble. I wrote about employee recall issues recently. Specifically, I listed issues regarding the WARN Act, age discrimination, collective bargaining issues, and issues with the FFCRA once an employee is brought back. As businesses recall employees all of these issues, especially those related to discrimination, will become major concerns.
6. Refusal to Perform An Illegal Act
A Texas Supreme Court case called Sabine Pilot Service, Inc. v. Hauck states that an employer cannot fire an employee when they refuse to perform an illegal act.
In a recently filed case, an employee was required to come into the office to work. She claims that she was able to work from home and that the business was not an essential business and thus her employer was requiring to do an illegal act by requiring her to come to work. She claims that she was fired for refusing to come to work, which would have violated the stay at home order.
As businesses continue to reopen and restrictions continue to be placed on businesses, it may be the case that there will be additional lawsuits like this one.
7. FFCRA and Expanded Family and Medical Leave Lawsuits
When employees are finally able to resume working and meet with attorneys, it is likely that some of them will have potential claims against their employer for failing to follow the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). There may have been a number of people that have not been able to work because of childcare issues, their own illnesses, and being denied leave for other reasons (some of which may be legitimate). At least one employer has already been sued. Many companies will face similar lawsuits.
8. Disability Discrimination Lawsuits
As I mentioned previously, employers have obligations to accommodate individuals based on a disability. As companies open up, it is likely that many people that may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 will seek accommodations from their employer. The most common accommodations include remote work or additional leave. The way that employers respond to these employee requests for a reasonable accomodation will be critical to avoiding potential lawsuits.
9. Employee Layoff Issues and Lawsuits
The sheer number of employees that have lost their jobs (more than 40 million) leaves a lot of room for lawsuits that typically follow a layoff. Excluding lawsuits related to WARN, here are some of the common issues that follow a layoff.
a. COBRA Notice Lawsuits
I wrote about COBRA notice problems in a recent post. There will be more COBRA lawsuits due to the difficulty that many companies have in providing appropriate notice to employees of their loss in health insurance coverage.
b. Non-Compete and Trade Secret Litigation
As people leave companies because of layoffs many will try to start their own companies or will be hired by competitors of their former employer. Some of these employees will inadvertently or purposefully try to take clients or trade secrets of their former employer. Companies should be careful when laying off workers that they eliminate employee access to various accounts and that no information is taken. Companies would do well to consider a severance agreement for employees with any confidential information to make sure that they return all confidential information and understand their responsibilities.
c. Failure to Pay Employees Properly
At least one company has been sued for failing to pay employees after the business was forced to shutdown due to COVID-19 and the employer lacked the funds to pay employees for their most recent work. It is likely that a number of wage and hour lawsuits will occur after the pandemic ends. Many employees were working remotely at time when many companies did not have many remote employees and may not have had the framework in place to track working time for these employees. The failure to correctly track time worked is likely to be a big concern for all companies that had hourly employees that were working remotely.
10. Remote Work Increases
Remote work is going to increase after the pandemic ends. Approximately 66% of workers were working remotely at the height of the coronavirus. This is compared to the approximately 5 million workers (or 3.6% of the workforce) that were working at home at least half the time in 2018. One survey from Gartner of CFO’s found that 74% of the surveyed CFO’s believed that 5% of their workforce would be permanently converted from office to remote employees after the pandemic ends. With as easy as it is to work from anywhere for office employees one should expect this trend to continue to accelerate.
Life after the pandemic will be very different than it was before. People are much more concerned about safety. Travel is down and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Some countries are discussing reducing globalization and diversifying their supply chains. In other words, the pandemic and the governments’ reaction to it are a major black swan event.
Companies need to be aware of the above issues in the immediate future as they navigate a post COVID-19 pandemic workplace. The only way for companies to grow after COVID-19 is for companies to adapt and seek ways to improve. Companies need to plan for the above problems and work with employees to succeed. With a recession already underway and uncertainty about how long it will take the economy to recover, planning is critical to the future success of companies.
The information provided in this blog is for educational purposes only and is not legal advice. If you need legal advice, then you should speak with a lawyer about your specific issues. Every legal issue is unique. A lawyer can help you with your situation. Reading the blog, contacting me through the site, emailing me or commenting on a post does not create an attorney-client relationship between any reader and me.
The information provided is my own and does not reflect the opinion of my firm or anyone else.
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