Do you feel unsafe going to work because of COVID-19? Here are your options

One third of grocery-store workers say their employer hasn’t taken the proper steps to keep employees safe during the pandemic, according to one survey

As essential workers continue to risk COVID-19 exposure at work, a third of grocery-store workers say their employer hasn’t taken the proper steps to keep employees safe during the pandemic, according to a survey conducted this summer for the Ontario-based frontline worker training company Axonify, which polled 2,000 frontline workers across a variety of industries in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

Meanwhile, a July survey of more than 21,200 nurses conducted by the National Nurses United union found that just 24% of nurses believed their employer was providing a safe workplace, and 87% of hospital nurses said they had reused at least one form of single-use personal protective equipment.

And it appears that many workers who have the luxury of working remotely would like to keep doing so: More than six in 10 professionals who responded to a recent LinkedIn survey said they wanted to continue working from home in some capacity after their workplace reopened, and a quarter preferred that option permanently.

“Their main reason? They don’t feel safe going back to work yet,” Caroline Fairchild, an editor-at-large at LinkedIn News, wrote in a blog post. “Some 57% of workers in our survey cited safety as a top concern.”

For starters, workers who have safety concerns due to a physical condition that puts them at higher risk for COVID-19 complications — or a mental-health condition made worse by the pandemic — could be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act if there is one that allows them to still do their job, said David Fram, the director of ADA services for the nonprofit National Employment Law Institute.

A disability, as defined by the ADA, is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.” Major life activities can include “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”

“The way it comes up in the COVID context would be if somebody were to say, ‘I’ve got an underlying condition, like [multiple sclerosis] or asthma, and it’s because of that underlying condition that I can’t be around others in a workplace, where I’ve got this real fear that I could contract COVID,’” Fram said.

Another example: A person with a severe anxiety disorder could see their symptoms exacerbated when they’re around other people in a workplace where they fear coronavirus exposure, he said.

The employee would engage in the so-called interactive process with the employer to determine “essential functions” fundamental to the job and identify possible accommodations. A reasonable accommodation in this case might be to modify the physical workplace, like by erecting plexiglass barriers or separating desks, or to modify a policy, like by changing the employee’s schedule to help them avoid crowded rush-hour mass transit, Fram suggested.

Employees hoping to work from home due to safety concerns would need to both have a disability and be able to perform their job’s essential functions at home, Fram added. But in the COVID-19 context, he said, “a lot of employers have gone beyond what they have to do.”

“Face it: Many jobs that can’t be done fully at home, employers have been letting people work at home because it’s in everybody’s interest,” he said. “Technically that’s going beyond the ADA, if an employer is letting somebody work at home where not all of the essential functions can be done at home — so it’s not bad, it’s just going beyond what the ADA requires.”

If an employee believes their employer isn’t complying with the ADA and has been unsuccessful in trying to communicate with the employer directly, they can file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a state regulatory agency that investigates disability compliance, Fram said.

Additionally, state and federal protections such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) may entitle eligible employees to sick leave.

“Even if that’s not your primary concern, if there’s someone in your household that is sick or if you have a child at home, you may be able to leverage that to take sick leave,” employment attorney Paula Brantner, the principal and president of the firm PB Work Solutions, told MarketWatch. Workers may also have rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).