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Know Your Rights: Workplace Protections During COVID-19

September 29, 2021 Guides & Reports


Palyn Hung

Palyn Hung

Staff Attorney, Workers' Rights

Palyn Hung

Staff Attorney, Workers' Rights

Palyn’s legal career spans two legal services programs, the National Employment Law Project, and the New York Civil Liberties Union. She has advocated for disabled clients in administrative hearings and abused clients in protective order, custody, and divorce proceedings. At NELP, she was co-counsel on a class action that recovered back wages and overtime for grocery store and pharmacy delivery workers. Following the 2004 Republican National Convention, as a staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, Palyn represented peaceful protestors caught up in mass arrests, ultimately leading to a large group settlement. Most recently, she was a volunteer at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, helping achieve a trial victory in a national origin discrimination case challenging a hiring question on prior use of other Social Security Numbers. After graduating from Harvard College and Columbia Law School, she clerked for a federal magistrate judge in Brooklyn.

COVID-19 has been widely recognized as a hazard, and employers have a legal responsibility to maintain a safe workplace. Through ceaseless advocacy by advocates and workers, California has passed new protections. Since the onset of the pandemics, we are ensuring your rights are protected while at work.

It is crucial for all workers to know your rights in the workplace in the case your employer is not abiding by these laws. You should feel safe at work, in both your health and from the fear of your employer retaliating if/when you bring up a concern.

Review our frequently asked questions about your rights below, and contact us if you have any concerns!

We also have dozens of multilingual know your rights materials on our website - read and share so you and your colleagues feel safe and protected while at work.

I am being required to work, but I don’t think it’s safe. What should I do?

Workers have a right to refuse to perform work that is unsafe or dangerous. However, this is hard to demonstrate. If you encounter a hazard in your workplace, you may consider filing a confidential Cal/OSHA claim with the California Department of Industrial Relations.

Workers have the right to proper safety equipment, including masks and gloves, and proper sanitation measures in the workplace.

If the employer fails to follow COVID-19 guidelines, it may constitute good cause for the employee to quit and still qualify for unemployment insurance. However, to qualify for unemployment insurance, the employee must first try to resolve the problem with the employer before quitting or show it was futile to do so.

What is my employer required to do for my safety?

  • Develop site-specific COVID-19 Prevention Program that addresses health hazards (for example, screening, physical distancing, ventilation, face coverings, etc.)
  • Correct unsafe or unhealthy conditions and investigate any infections
  • Notify workers in writing of any exposure and provide free testing during paid time (for workers who have been exposed to COVID
  • Notify public health authorities of multiple infections or outbreaks at work site

What if I’m at a higher risk of getting COVID?

If you have a serious medical condition constituting a disability (i.e. limiting a major life activity) and that puts you at a higher risk of contracting COVID, you might be entitled to a “reasonable accommodation.” A reasonable accommodation could include modified job duties, working from home, extended leave, or a different work assignment.

Once aware of the disability, the employer needs to engage with you in a timely, “good faith, interactive process” (a back-and-forth communication with you) about possible accommodations. However, if the specific accommodation you request creates an “undue hardship” for the employer, they can refuse to provide it.

Can my employer mandate vaccination?

Yes, employers are allowed to require employees to be vaccinated before they return to work and provide proof of vaccination.

However, employers cannot violate anti-discrimination laws prohibiting harassment or discrimination on the basis of a protected characteristic (e.g. race, religion, gender, sexual orientation).

What are some COVID-related protections from retaliation?

Your employer may not retaliate against any worker for:

  • Using or asking to use any type of paid sick leave, including exclusion pay.
  • Refusing to do work that both violates Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and puts workers or co-workers in “imminent danger.”
  • Reporting a violation of the law or refusing to participate in an activity that would violate the law.
  • Retaliation includes layoff, termination, reducing hours, reporting or threatening to report a worker or family member to immigration authorities, filing or threatening to file a false police report.