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Exposure to COVID-19 and the Workplace: What Massachusetts Employees Need to Know

woman-in-blue-sweater-lying-on-bed-3873179-scaledIf you have been exposed to COVID-19 or have COVID-19, the last thing you want to worry about is your workplace rights and obligations. However, both you and your employer have certain rights and obligations to ensure your health and safety, and the health and safety of people you come into contact with at work.

What do I do if I’ve been exposed, tested positive, or have symptoms of COVID-19?

The Massachusetts Attorney General has made clear that employers can require employees who have been exposed or have a family member who has been exposed to stay out of work, even if quarantine has not been recommended. If you exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, your employer can also require you to stay out of work even if you have not tested for COVID-19. If your employer requires you to stay out of work, you are eligible to apply for unemployment benefits, and may also be eligible for the new paid sick leave benefits the federal government recently enacted.

If you have been exposed to COVID-19, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) directs that you self-quarantine in your home for fourteen days. If you have tested positive for COVID-19 or are showing symptoms, DPH directs you to self-isolate at home, a more extreme form of restriction than self-quarantine. If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, Massachusetts offers various ways to determine when you can stop home isolation. If you test positive but develop no symptoms, you can stop home isolation once seven days have passed from the positive test. If you develop symptoms, you can stop home isolation when you have been fever-free and other symptoms have improved for at least three days and it has been more than seven days since the symptoms started. Alternately, if you develop symptoms, you can stop home isolation when you are fever-free, other symptoms are resolved, and you have taken two COVID-19 tests, at least 24 hours apart, that are both negative for the virus.

What if my employer wants me to work even though I’ve been exposed, tested positive, or have symptoms?

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office and CDC have urged employers to follow their guidelines regarding quarantine and isolation for exposed workers.

If your employer takes action against you for following public health guidelines to self-isolate due to COVID-19, you may have legal recourse. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) protects employees from retaliation for raising health and safety concerns to their supervisors, to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), or for participating in an OSHA investigation into the workplace. Retaliatory actions may include termination, suspension, demotion, making threats, denying benefits, reassignment, or reducing hours. If your employer takes any of these types of actions against you for raising health concerns, — for example, asserting your need to self-isolate after being exposed, testing positive, or having symptoms of COVID-19 — you may have a whistleblower claim under the OSH Act. There is a very short time period to file a complaint with OSHA for retaliation; you must file within 30 days of the retaliation in order to pursue this type of claim.

Public employees in Massachusetts are also protected by our state whistleblower law, which prohibits retaliation against an employee who raises concerns about practices that the employee reasonably believes violates a law, regulation, or rule, or poses a public health risk. An employee is also protected from retaliation for refusing to participate in an activity that he or she reasonably believes violates a law, regulation, or rule, or poses a public health risk. Employees may have additional state-law claims if they are fired for trying to abide by public health guidelines.

If you are a healthcare worker, there are special guidelines to follow. If a healthcare worker is exposed to COVID-19, but has no symptoms, he or she can continue to work with patients but must wear a face mask the entire time they are at work for fourteen days following exposure. If a healthcare worker develops any symptoms, they must immediately stop patient care activities and be tested for COVID-19. In addition to OSH Act and state whistleblower laws, healthcare workers may also be protected by the Massachusetts Health Care Whistleblower Act, which prohibits retaliation against healthcare workers who raise concerns about, or refuse to participate in, actions that violate laws, regulations, or rules or pose a public health risk.

If your believe your employer is requiring you to work in unsafe conditions, is not providing you with sick leave to which you are entitled, or is not following public health guidance related to COVID-19, fill out our online intake form or call us at (617) 742-6020 to be connected with an employment lawyer.

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