Tag Archives: COVID-19

What Employers Can Learn From Early COVID-19 Employee Lawsuits

Business solutions, success and strategy conceptJust as businesses are beginning to face the initial wave of COVID-19 impacts, lawyers are seeing the first wave of employee lawsuits.  It is premature to even call these the tip of the iceberg, but the lessons from these early cases can prove meaningful and help businesses mitigate risk.

Ordinarily, workplace injuries and illnesses are handled through each state’s workers’ compensation system, but most states have exceptions that allow employees to bring a direct lawsuit for pain and suffering damages if certain conditions are met.  The standards to bring such claims vary state-by-state, but, generally, an employee must show the employer engaged in something more than ordinary negligent conduct (often gross negligence), such as removing a safety guard from machinery.  Certain states allow employees to bring direct claims if the injury occurred under circumstances where an employer knew or should have known with substantial certainty that the injury would occur and those circumstances deviated from standard industry practice.  These claims, especially if there are other similarly injured employees, create significant risk for businesses and may not be covered by insurance.

As it relates to injuries from COVID-19, we are seeing employees claim that they contracted the virus in their workplace because their employers failed to take necessary, industry-standard precautions under circumstances in which injury was substantially certain.  It remains to be seen whether employees will be able to show their COVID-19 complications were workplace injuries and how courts will delineate what employer lapses extend beyond ordinary negligence, but there are important lessons from these early cases that may help businesses limit risk.

In one recent example, the estate of a former Walmart employee brought an action against the retailer in Illinois state court after the employee died from COVID-19 complications.  In the suit, the estate alleges Walmart knew or should have known COVID-19 was present and active in the store, but failed to protect its workers in accordance with industry standards.  According to the employee’s estate, management knew several workers and individuals had symptoms of COVID-19, however, it did not (i) cleanse and sterilize the store in order to prevent COVID-19 infection; (ii) implement, promote and enforce social distancing guidelines promulgated by governmental entities; (iii) provide the employee and other workers with personal protective equipment such as masks, latex gloves, and other devices designed to prevent COVID-19 infection; (iv) warn the employee and other workers that various individuals were experiencing symptoms at the store and may have been infected by the coronavirus; (v) address other workers at the store who communicated to management that they were experiencing COVID-19 signs and symptoms; (vi) follow COVID-19 guidelines issued by OSHA and the CDC, including providing employees with antibacterial soaps and wipes and other cleaning agents; and (vii) implement policies and procedures to promptly identify and isolate sick people as also recommended by the CDC.

Of course, at this stage these are only allegations and we do not have the benefit of Walmart’s response, but the allegations are instructive as they are guideposts to the kind of conduct that may give rise to liability. Paying attention to them will allow employers to implement policies and procedures that will protect employees and mitigate the risk of claims that the employer’s conduct is sufficient to support a claim that seeks recovery beyond that available under through the workers’ compensation system.

Savvy employer’s takeaway: While it presents a unique challenge for employers to meet new and changing guidelines for maintaining operations, it is vital that employers stay abreast of all current federal, state, and local guidance, including guidance from the CDC and OSHA, and maintain and enforce policies consistent with that guidance. 

The attorneys at Flaster Greenberg are following developments related to the COVID-19 Pandemic and formed a response team and to work with businesses to keep them up-to-date on developments that impact their business.  For more information on what employers can do to comply with the changing law and manage risk, we invite you to contact Adam Gersh, or any member of Flaster Greenberg’s Labor and Employment Practice Group.

Guest Blog: 4 Ways To Keep Your Business Secure During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Cyber security concept businessman Lock on digital screen, contrast, virtual screen with a consultant doing presentation in the background Closed Padlock on digital, cyber security, key WannaCrypt

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the coronavirus to be a pandemic. This is significant for several reasons. The first is that the way we interact has drastically, and must necessarily, change because of the contagiousness of the coronavirus and its effect on public health. Secondly, a public health scare such as this can adversely affect the health of a business’s cybersecurity and data privacy. Hackers and other cyber threat actors are capitalizing on the global concern over COVID-19. For example, Check Point researchers found that coronavirus-themed domains are over fifty (50) times more likely to be malicious than other domains and over 4,000 coronavirus-related domains have been registered since January 2020. In fact, a malicious website purporting to be the live map for COVID-19 global cases run by Johns Hopkins has been found to be circulating.

What does all of this mean? It means that your business, including your employees and clients, could be in danger if you don’t take precautionary measures to prevent the risk of a data breach.

How can small and mid-size businesses adapt quickly to ensure effective cybersecurity and data privacy protection right now? If your workforce has gone largely remote, you should focus your cybersecurity and data privacy efforts mainly on the following four areas most susceptible to a breach. This may help to mitigate the risk of a breach actually happening and limit any potential liability.

Below are four ways to keep your business safe from hackers and data breaches during this tumultuous time:

  1. Email Security
    • Make sure you and your staff know how to keep your email secure. Avoid opening emails, downloading attachments, or clicking on suspicious links sent from unknown or untrusted sources.
    • Verify unexpected attachments or links from people you know by contacting them through another method of communication like a phone call or text message.
    • Do not provide personal information to unknown sources like passwords, birthdates, and especially, social security numbers.
    • Be especially cognizant of emails with poor design, grammar, or spelling as this can be a sign of a phishing attempt.
  2. Password Protection and Multi-Factor Authentication
    • Use strong passwords on all of your accounts, and encourage your staff to do the same.
    • Avoid easy-to-guess words like names of pets, children, and spouses as well as common dates like birthdays.
  3. Web Safety
    • As noted above, there has been a massive influx of fake websites, whose creators are looking to take advantage of the fear surrounding the coronavirus.
    • Make sure that any websites that require the insertion of account credentials like usernames and passwords, along with those used to conduct financial transactions, are encrypted with a valid digital certificate to ensure your data is secure. Secure websites like these will typically have a green padlock located in the URL field and will begin with “https.”
    • While your workforce is working remotely, ensure that they are not using public computers and/or logging into public Wi-Fi connections to log into accounts and access sensitive information.
    • You may want to connect with an IT company or your in-house IT department to implement ad-blocking, script-blocking, and coin-blocking browser extensions to protect systems against malicious advertising attacks and scripts designed to launch malware.
    • Sign out of accounts and shut down computers and mobile devices when not in use.
  4. Device Maintenance 
    • Keep all hardware and software updated with the latest, patched version.
    • Run reputable antivirus or anti-malware applications on all devices and keep them updated with the latest version.
    • Create multiple, redundant backups of all critical and sensitive data and keep them stored off the network in the event of a ransomware infection or other destructive malware incident. This will allow you to recover lost files, if needed.

Lastly, if your business is not already protected by a cyber-insurance policy, now may be the time to consider obtaining coverage.

Small and mid-size businesses in the Delaware Valley should consider implementing the above cybersecurity and data privacy measures while adapting to a shifting health and security landscape in the wake of the coronavirus.

Stay safe, everyone!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

corporate attorney philadelphia law firm


Krishna A. Jani
 is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department focusing her practice on complex commercial litigation. She is also a member of the firm’s cybersecurity and data privacy law practice groups. She can be reached at 215.279.9907 or krishna.jani@flastergreenberg.com.

An Employer’s Guide to the COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak & FAQs

Coronavirus Virus Outbreak

This is an unprecedented time and employers face an evolving crisis and fast-moving changes to laws.  The team at Flaster Greenberg is prepared to help guide employers on compliance with existing and new laws, as well as best practices.  This is a summary of the most important things employers should keep in mind when it comes to adjusting policies to address this crisis.

On March 14, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which, among other things, expands paid leave and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits.  It also offers tax credits to help offset the burdens imposed by the expanded leave.  While this is not yet law, employers should account for its implications in formulating their workplace response.

Emergency Paid Leave and FMLA Expansion

The Act has provisions relating to nutrition, public health, insurance, and more, but the most relevant proposed changes for the workplace require employers with fewer than 500 employees to offer paid leave and expands FMLA rights for employees of those businesses.  Perhaps the most significant of the changes reflected in the Act is that they require covered employers to provide additional paid leave for parents if their child’s school is closed due to the coronavirus.

In summary, for employers with fewer than 500 employees, the paid leave provisions of the Act:

  • Require covered employers to provide each full-time employee with paid sick leave to:
    • Isolate because the employee has been diagnosed with coronavirus;
    • Obtain a diagnosis or care if the employee is suffering from symptoms of coronavirus;
    • Comply with recommendations of a public official or healthcare provider on the basis that employee’s presence at work will jeopardize the health of others due to exposure to coronavirus or exhibition of symptoms of coronavirus;
    • Care for a family member who is isolating because of a diagnosis, seeking care or diagnosis for symptoms, and/or must isolate to comply with recommendations of a public official or healthcare provider on the basis that family member’s presence in the community will jeopardize the health of others due to exposure to coronavirus or exhibition of symptoms of coronavirus;
    • Care for a child if his/her school has been closed or childcare is unavailable due to coronavirus;
  • Offer up to an additional 80 hours of paid sick leave for fulltime employees and two-weeks’ for part-time employees based on hours normally worked;
  • Prohibit an employer from applying sick leave or other paid time off otherwise available to meet this requirement;
  • Protect employees from being required to find a replacement co-worker to cover time the employee will miss;
  • Protect employees from discrimination and retaliation; and
  • Allow an employer to pay two-thirds of an employee’s compensation rate if the basis for the leave is to care for a child or family member (but not the illness of the employee).

In concert with the paid leave provisions of the Act, the FMLA expansion:

  • Applies the leave requirement to all employers with fewer than 500 employees, not just those with 50 or more employees, which has been the threshold for FMLA;
  • Exempts smaller employers with fewer than 50 employees only if complying “jeopardizes the viability of the business as a going concern”;
  • Allows coronavirus leave to be deemed FMLA, job-protected leave if taken at any time though December 31, 2020;
  • Makes emergency FMLA leave available to employees who have been employed for at least 30 calendar days, as opposed to the 12 months ordinarily required for FMLA leave;
  • Expands the definition of “parent” to include stepparents and others who act in loco parentis;
  • Expands the reasons employees may take FMLA leave to include:
    • To comply with a recommendation or order by a public official or healthcare provider on the basis that (i) the physical presence of the employee on the job would jeopardize the health of others because of the exposure of the employee to coronavirus or because the employee exhibits symptoms of the coronavirus; or (ii) the employee is unable to both perform the functions of the position of such employee and comply with such recommendation or order;
    • To care for a family member if a public official or healthcare provider recommended that the presence of the family member in the community would jeopardize the health of other individuals in the community; and
    • To care for a child under 18 years of age because the child’s school is closed;
  • Prohibits an employer from requiring an employee to use paid leave as part of FMLA leave, though the employee may opt to do so;
  • Requires an employer to provide paid leave after the first 14 days (which may be covered by the emergency leave law above), provided, however, such leave may be paid at no less than two-thirds of the employee’s pay; and
  • Provides certain exemptions for the requirement to restore an employee to his/her former position for employers with 25 or fewer employees.

Available Tax Credits for Employers and Self-Employed Individuals

To help offset the burdens of compliance, the bill offers certain payroll tax credits to those employers who must pay wages to employees pursuant to the expanded paid leave and FMLA benefits under the Act.  However, these tax credits under the Act will not be available to employers already receiving a credit for paying FMLA amounts pursuant to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (Public Law 115-97).

In general, employee wages are subject to a total 12.4% Social Security payroll tax, which is paid equally by employers and employees.  Under the Act, employers will receive certain refundable tax credits through December 31, 2020 to offset the portion of the Social Security tax that they are required to pay. The refundable tax credits will be provided for Social Security taxes otherwise imposed on:

  • Qualified sick leave wages of up to $511 per day paid to employees who are on sick leave to care for themselves, or if the employee is on qualified sick leave to care for a family member or child if  the child’s school is closed, then the employer will receive tax credit for Social Security tax imposed on qualified sick leave wages of up to $200 per day. Qualified sick leave pay under the Act is limited to the excess of 10 days over the aggregate number of days taken into account for all preceding calendar quarters.
  • Qualified FMLA wages of up to $200 per day (capped at a total of $10,000 for the same employee for all calendar quarters) paid to employees who are on qualified FMLA leave.

Refundable tax credits will also similarly be available to self-employed individuals who receive “qualified sick leave equivalent pay” or “qualified FMLA equivalent pay”.  Specifically, the self-employed pay tax credits will be provided for income tax assessed on:

  • 100% of an eligible self-employed individual’s pay that constitutes “qualified sick-leave equivalent pay”, or 67% of the same if the individual is taking care of a family member or a child following the child’s school closing.  For these purposes “qualified sick-leave equivalent pay” is pay that equals the lesser of the individual’s average daily self-employment income, or $511 per day if the sick leave is for the care of the self-employed individual.  The $511 limit is reduced to $200 per day if “qualified sick-leave equivalent pay” is being paid to care for a sick family member or child following a school closing.  It would be available for 10 days over the number of days taken into account in preceding years.
  • 100% of an eligible self-employed individual’s pay that constitutes “qualified FMLA equivalent pay”.  An “eligible” self-employed individual for these purposes is an individual that would be entitled to receive paid leave under the Act if he was an employee of an employer.  “Qualified FMLA equivalent pay” may only be paid for up to as many as 50 days, and may equal the lesser of $200 per day or the individual’s average daily self-employment income for the taxable year.

Technical corrections and future guidance are expected to clarify and how long these tax credits may be available to small employers and self-employed individuals.

These refundable tax credits will reduce taxes owed by employers and self-employed individuals dollar-for-dollar .  Additionally, as a “refundable” tax credit, an employer or self-employed individual will receive the full-amount of the tax credit even if the credit exceeds the employer’s entire tax bill. Therefore, employers and individuals will continue to withhold applicable taxes in the same manner as taxes are withheld for wages for qualified sick leave and qualified FMLA leave, but expect to benefit from the tax credits when they complete applicable quarterly and/or annual tax returns.

While the Act is important because it imposes new and unfamiliar obligations on employers, existing laws also provide rights and are significant to navigating the impact of this pandemic on the workplace.  To better understand how all of these laws fit together, we compiled the following answers to frequently asked questions.  Employers should understand that this situation and the law are changing in ways we cannot necessarily anticipate.  Employers should consult with counsel to review and discuss how they respond to these issues.

Q&A

Q:    I have an employee who has tested positive for coronavirus or is exhibiting potential symptoms, what do I do?

A:    Send that employee home.  You have the right to send such an employee home even involuntarily.  Under the Act, if passed, such employees would be entitled to an additional two weeks of paid leave (in addition to any other vacation, sick time, or other paid time off otherwise available) and FMLA job-protected leave.

Q:    I have an employee who has been in close contact with an exposed individual or is otherwise in a high risk situation, may I prevent the employee from working or coming to the office?

A:    Yes.  If the employee is not working remotely, he or she  will be eligible for paid leave.

Q:    May I require employees to work remotely?

A:    Yes.  Employees may be required to work remotely, however, they should be provided with necessary tools to work remotely if they do not otherwise have them and if the tools are required for work; e.g., computers, printers, etc.  Employers should keep in mind, if they require a non-exempt employee (i.e., an employee who is entitled to overtime pay) to work from home, they may not require the non-exempt employee to pay for business expenses, where doing so reduces the non-exempt employee’s earnings below the required minimum wage or overtime compensation.  This provision would only apply to the additional cost of working from home.

Q:    May I require an employee use paid time off if he or she is quarantined?

A:    Ordinarily, an employer could impose such a requirement, however, under the Act, an employee must be permitted to use mandated leave first if applicable.

Q:    May I prohibit employees from using accrued paid time off if they are quarantined?

A:    If your employees work in New Jersey, the New Jersey Earned Sick Leave law permits use of statutorily-required sick leave (up to 40 hours) for public health emergencies if their workplace or child’s school or day care is closed or a public health authority determines the need for a quarantine.  Employees can also use this time to care for themselves or a family member who is ill.

Q:    Are advancing vacation time and exempting coronavirus-related absences an option to ease the burden on my workforce?

A:    Yes.  Employers can be more flexible with leave, however, employers should consider putting appropriate safeguards into place, such as requiring employees to repay advanced leave payments if they voluntarily leave employment within a set period of time.

Q:    If we close temporarily, do we have to pay employees?

A:    It depends.  You are required to pay non-exempt/hourly employees only for hours worked. This means, if you close your business temporarily due to coronavirus issues, you are not required to pay non-exempt/hourly employees, provided, however, you do give them required paid leave. However, employers also must account for applicable state wage and hour laws.  Salaried, exempt employees, must be paid for any work week in which they perform service.

Q:    If my employees cannot work a full schedule due to office closings, do I still have to pay them?

A:    For exempt, salaried employees, if they work at all during a week, they must be paid their pro-rated salary for that week.  For hourly employees, you need only pay them for hours worked.  Of course, all leave benefits, including those available under the Act, if it passes, apply, so paid leave may be available even if an office is closed.  In addition, an employer’s policies, procedures, or collective bargaining agreements may impose additional obligations.

Q:    My employees are scared to come to work, can I discipline them?

A:    It depends.  Employees who have disabilities should be given reasonable accommodations.  This means employees whose anxiety or other conditions are triggered by the coronavirus pandemic are due reasonable accommodations.  Additionally, the National Labor Relations Act protects nonsupervisory employees, whether they are unionized or not, who refuse to work in conditions they reasonably and objectively believe to be unsafe.  Likewise, OSHA protects employees who refuse to work in conditions they deem to be an imminent danger.

Q:    Is an employer liable if it requires employees to come to work?

A:    It could be.  As noted above, the National Labor Relations Act protects nonsupervisory employees, whether they are unionized or not, who refuse to work in conditions they reasonably and objectively believe to be unsafe.  OSHA also protects employees, both supervisory and non-supervisory, who refuse to work in conditions they deem to be an imminent danger.

Q:    Should we close our offices?

A:    Employers, absent those under governmental order to do so, are not required to close their offices.  If it is feasible, employers should do everything they can to permit remote work and limit visitors to the office and avoid large scale meetings.  This is an evolving situation and employers should follow the advice of public health officials.

Q:    Someone in my office tested positive for coronavirus, can we tell the other employees?

A:    Employers should inform employees of their risk of exposure but, if possible, should not disclose the name or any protected health information of the individual(s) infected.

Questions? Let me know.

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