The COVID-19 pandemic raises questions for employees, employers, and unemployment compensation. We help clients and the public answer the most common questions here.
Legal issues include mandatory vaccination policies, work-from-home accommodations, and unemployment benefits eligibility.
Can Employers Mandate Employee Vaccination?
The short answer is yes, employers are legally allowed to mandate that their employees get vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. In other words, they are generally allowed to tell employees that they must either be vaccinated by a certain date or face termination of employment. It is not a violation of HIPAA or employee rights for employers to demand proof of vaccination.
However, there are important exceptions to this requirement. The first is when an employee has a documented disability or medical issue that makes it medically inadvisable for them to receive the vaccination. Some employees experience allergic reactions or have underlying chronic conditions that would put them in danger if they received the vaccination. In that case, employers are legally required under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to reasonably accommodate workers. Accommodations might include wearing a mask instead of vaccination, or working from home. To secure those legal rights, employees need to make sure they have clear documentation from their physician regarding the medical issues. They also need to create a clear paper trail with the employer showing they have been given notice of the underlying condition.
The second exception applies when an employee holds a sincere religious belief that would prevent them from getting the COVID vaccine. Proving such a belief can be difficult, and the legal standards are subject to interpretation here. On one end of the spectrum, it is not enough for an employee to simply assert a religious belief against the COVID vaccine without further explanation. On the other end, an employee who explains their sincere religious belief, documents it with consistent medical history of non-vaccination, and provides supporting documentation from a religious leader has a very strong case to show that they are entitled to a religious exemption.
This same analysis applies to employers forcing employees to wear masks.
The issues involved in each case are often nuanced, and an employee facing a situation like this is strongly advised to consult with an employment attorney about their particular circumstances.
Can You Work From Home Due to COVID?
Some jobs simply cannot be done remotely because they require physical presence. But many companies with office workers discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic that those jobs could be performed remotely from home. Conflicts inevitably arise when the employer wants a worker to report for duty in person, but the employee wants to be able to work from home due to COVID concerns. These situations implicate state and federal laws that protect employee rights.
Most importantly, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act requires companies to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled workers. To be considered disabled under the law, an employee must have an impairment that substantially limits one or more major activity. A relevant example might be an employee who has an underlying condition like asthma that makes them particularly susceptible to serious complications from COVID exposure. An employee like that can document their disability and make a strong argument that they should be able to work from home as an accommodation, if they can do all the essential functions of the job remotely. If the company has allowed working from home in the past, it strengthens the employee's case because they can show the accommodation is clearly possible and reasonable for the employer to provide.
However, any ADA accommodation negotiation is difficult. The employer and employee might disagree about whether the condition qualifies as a "disability," or they might fight about whether working from home is a "reasonable" accommodation, or they could battle over whether the employee can actually perform all the essential functions remotely. Since a job may hang in the balance, consulting with an employment lawyer is always a good idea.
How Does COVID Affect Unemployment?
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected unemployment compensation benefits in Pennsylvania in a number of important ways.
First, the pandemic resulted in additional unemployment programs, expanded eligibility, and supplemental benefits. Certain gig workers and self-employed individuals who normally don't qualify for UC benefits were given the opportunity to receive them because of the unprecedented nature of the outbreak. The government funded additional benefits funds for thousands of Pennsylvanians. Those programs helped a lot of people, but they also brought a lot of complexity to the unemployment system that was already full of red tape. Every claimant now knows that firsthand.
Second, COVID has massively slowed down the entire unemployment system as it has been swamped with claims. Our clients regularly tell us about waiting on hold for hours to speak with the UC office and waiting for weeks to receive basic paperwork in the mail about their case. There is little that anybody, including state representatives and private attorneys, can do to speed the process along. The overloaded system is universally frustrating for every Pennsylvanian who has to deal with it in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic.
Third, the pandemic has resulted in a large number of overpayment cases. In the early days of the outbreak, the Pennsylvania unemployment system approved lots of claimants quickly in order to get benefits out to those who needed them. Months later, the department began scrutinizing the initial applications and finding reasons to retroactively deny benefits. Thousands of people received notices of overpayment months after receiving funds, and now they are concerned about having to repay huge amounts to the government.
Do Employees Get Time Off For COVID?
During parts of 2020, the federal government specifically required some employers to provide sick leave to employees for COVID-related reasons under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Since the beginning of 2021 however, that requirement expired. There is no specific Pennsylvania or federal law that directly deals with sick leave for COVID.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act may still apply to COVID-related situations and give employees protected time off.
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