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Your job-related coronavirus questions answered

HOUSTON – Many people are concerned about work right now. If they’ll be paid, when they’ll be paid and some even have concerns if they still have to report to work every day.

We took your questions and concerns to employment attorney Rogge Dunn of the Rogge Dunn Group in Dallas.

Q: I wasn’t laid off, but my hours were cut. Can I still get unemployment to help pay my bills?

Dunn’s answer: Whether they call it furloughed, laid off, fired, I would apply for unemployment benefits. As the great Wayne Gretsky said, ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’ The worst that can happen if you were furloughed and you apply is they say you’re not eligible.

Q: I work in retail where I come into close contact with customers and coworkers all day. My employee told me I am not allowed to wear a mask or gloves because it scares the customers. Can business owners legally do that?

Dunn’s answer: Yes, unfortunately, they can. I had one of my clients call me about that. We looked at it. An employer can tell you not to wear a mask unless you have a disability. Let’s say you have some facial deformity or some issue with your face, you could wear a mask. An employer would have to allow a mask in that instance, but only if it was needed because of a disability.

Q: My employer is making me report to work, even though I don’t feel it is safe. I worry about my own health and loved ones who have weakened immune systems. What can I do?

Dunn’s answer: Legislators just passed two new acts that will allow employees to get paid leave due to coronavirus related issues and concerns.

The Employment Paid Sick Leave Act requires employers to pay employees for 10 days off (two work weeks) when they can’t work because of the coronavirus.

The Emergency Family Medical Leave Act gives employees 50 paid days off (after they take 10 days of unpaid leave) due to coronavirus related issues.

Both acts take effect on April 2. Dunn and others are still studying the acts, but he believes they can be stacked for a total of 60 paid days leave with a letter or call to human resources.

The acts are written fairly loose to allow employees to take advantage of them under the following circumstances:

  • The employee is quarantined, and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and seeking a medical diagnosis.
  • An employee who is unable to work because of a need to care for an individual subject to quarantine, to care for a child whose school is closed or child care provider is unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19
  • The employee is experiencing substantially similar conditions as specified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can receive two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at 2/3 the employee’s pay.

Under these new acts, your employer can not retaliate by firing you or demoting you for taking advantage of the leave. Employers with fewer than 500 employees will receive a tax credit for paying employees who do take paid leave.

Q: My employer gave me paperwork to sign that makes it appear I am agreeing not to file for unemployment. Is this legal?

Dunn’s answer: Generally speaking you can not release your unemployment or workers’ compensation rights, so my gut is that those releases aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Still, employees may worry they’ll be fired if they don’t sign the documents. Dunn says you should ask some questions in writing. You could send an email to human resources and your manager. Be polite and not adversarial. You could write, “I have some questions about this document you want me to sign. It seems to say that I will agree not to file for unemployment if I am laid off. Is that correct?”or “You asked me to sign this. I don’t think it’s appropriate to sign.”

Dunn said this will help you get everything in writing if you are terminated for not signing. You will have that email as evidence that you inquired and it will show that the employer was trying to violate the law by not allowing employees to file for unemployment. You would have a retaliation claim if they fired you after you send that email.

Q: When I told my employer I couldn’t work because I care for my spouse who is at risk, they gave me a document to sign that seems to change my pay from salary to hourly. There is no effective date on the paper. Should I sign it?

Dunn’s answer: Ask your employer in writing, ‘When is this effective? Why is this being done?’ Get some answers and document that.

It’s very important if someone asks you to sign something, everything they told you before you sign it is in that document and it’s crystal clear what this means and why it’s being done. My granddad used to say if it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen. Unfortunately, in a courtroom, memories fade, time passes maybe some people have convenient memories.

Q: My employer owns a small company. It’s not his fault we can’t work right now. I need unemployment to pay my bills, but I don’t want him to have to pay for it. Will businesses be stuck with all of these claims?

Dunn’s answer: One of the things I could see happening is the Texas Legislature saying we’re not going to charge back the employers because of the covid pandemic. That’s something that remains to be seen. Hopefully the government will step in because it behooves everybody to have these employers doing the right thing.