COVID-19: As more people return to work, 4 things to know about your rights

A man sits outside of an open barber shop business.
Dan Settle sits outside Chris' Barber Shop as he waits his turn for a haircut in Lilburn, Ga. on April 24. As the economy starts reopening, employees and businesses around the state are facing myriad concerns and questions about their safety at work.
Tami Chappell | AFP via Getty Images

As the economy starts reopening, employees and businesses around the state are facing myriad concerns and questions about their safety at work. 

Could employees catch coronavirus at work? How can employers protect their workers and customers from getting sick? What happens if they do get sick?

“We’ve heard from people who are concerned about their safety returning to the workplace,” said employment lawyer Emma Denny with Halunen Law. “Does their employer have the right to make them return to the workplace? Many people have health concerns due to underlying health conditions about their ability to return to the workplace safely.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued safety guidelines for all sorts of workplaces, from manufacturing to office space. 

In Minnesota, an array of executive orders signed by Gov. Tim Walz are aimed at keeping workers protected. And places like restaurants, bars, retail and manufacturing need plans in place to reopen safety. 

Some cities have issued their own additional safety guidelines, including rules for mask-wearing inside businesses — some mandatory and others voluntary

And while these measures may work in some places, it hasn’t stopped the virus from spreading in others. Clusters of positive COVID-19 cases tied to bars and restaurants in Mankato, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities have emerged in recent weeks. Some of the state’s largest outbreaks have been associated with meatpacking plants.

If you’ve been working this whole time, or are about to return to work, here’s what you need to know:

1) If you can work from home, you must work from home.

According to legal experts, there’s no gray area here. Walz’s Executive Order 20-56 states it clearly: 

“If your job can be performed from home, your employer must let you do it from home,” Denny said. “If someone has a concern that their employer is forcing them to return to work when they could in fact be doing their job from home, they could raise that concern and say this violates the governor’s order.”

Denny said employees who raise concerns about returning to in-person work, when they are able to perform their jobs remotely, can potentially be protected by the state’s whistleblower act; it prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who make complaints of illegal activity in the workplace. 

The same protections apply to raising concerns about workplace safety measures stemming from the pandemic. 

2) You can ask for reasonable accommodations at work.

The Minnesota Human Rights Act allows people with disabilities to request “reasonable accommodations” at work. 

So, for instance, if you have an underlying health condition that might put you at higher risk for contracting and being harmed by coronavirus, you have the right to ask your employer to telework to take paid, sick or unpaid leave. 

You might also be eligible for unemployment if your employer can’t provide accommodations. 

3) If you are immunocompromised, you may be able to continue to collect unemployment.

If the state closed your workplace during the pandemic, you may have collected unemployment.

Generally speaking, if your workplace is now allowed to reopen and you’re asked to return to work but you’re concerned about getting the virus, you won’t be able to continue collecting unemployment.

But: If you qualify for an exemption — for instance, if you are immunocompromised and your health care provider recommends self-isolation, or if there’s an outbreak at your workplace —  you may be able to extend those payments. 

4) You can ask for accommodation if someone you live with is in a COVID-19 high-risk group.

Again, you can ask for a reasonable accommodation. 

If your work can’t provide you with one, you may qualify for unemployment benefits. 

And if you quit a job to take care of someone who is ill, injured or disabled, you are eligible for benefits. 

If you feel you’ve been discriminated against at work you can contact the Minnesota Department of Human Rights 651-539-1133. If you feel your workplace isn’t taking steps to protect workers, you can contact Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration at 651-284-5050.

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