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FAQs: Answering your most pressing workplace questions amid the coronavirus pandemic

HOUSTON – COVID-19 in the workplace is real.

“It’s scary and chaotic. You don’t know what’s coming,” said Candice Oglesby who is a Kroger employee.

No matter the setting, workers from all industries are concerned about their safety on the job. It’s why we took some of your questions to the experts to get answers.

Question: My co-worker tested positive for coronavirus. Our boss said cleaning and disinfecting the work area wasn’t necessary because my co-worker had worn a mask while he was there.

Answer: That’s false according to Houston’s Public Health Authority Dr. David Persse.

“While we know that masks make a big difference, even though you were wearing a mask, you’ve been less than six feet for more than 15 minutes, you would then qualify as a contact, which then means, those individuals need to go home and quarantine,” Persse explained.

Legally, however, employers are not required to clean and disinfect the work place.

Question: Are businesses like Metro, Amazon, or even grocery stores, and hospitals, legally required to tell employees or the public when someone in the company has tested positive?

Answer: No.

“Reporting of infectious diseases is required by Texas law,” explained Persse. “But, it’s required of physicians and the laboratory. It’s not required of employers.”

Question: What if I don’t feel safe going to work? Can I refuse and still keep my job?

Answer: Yes, if you meet the requirements of one or both of two new acts.

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 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 took effect on April 2 and expire in December 2020. Employment attorney Rogge Dunn of the Rogge Dunn Group in Dallas said the acts 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

“You would say I have a problem related to COVID and I can’t work,” explained Dunn. “Then that allows you to trigger these benefits.”

Under these new acts, employers with fewer than 500 employees can not retaliate by firing you or demoting you for taking advantage of the leave. Read the federal acts here to make sure it applies to your employer.

In April, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced new Texas Workforce Commission rules that let employees choose not to work if they are high risk, they care for a high-risk family member or if they need to quarantine. But, those rules only say the employees will still be eligible for unemployment benefits. They do not provide job protection.

That means when you do feel safe to go back to work or when your benefits run out, your employer is not required to give you your job back. Read those state rules here.