The Moneyist: ‘This is such a blatant disregard for the coronavirus advice provided by the CDC.’ Can my boss force me to go to work? 

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Dear Moneyist,

I work in human resources for a municipality. The city’s population is an estimated 18,000 citizens. Our mayor has instructed us to still function as normal, with little precautions apart from increased cleaning. We still have quite a bit of foot traffic throughout the building. We had two employees return from out-of-state travel and a cruise to Cozumel. They were instructed to return to work, but wear masks and check their temperature every two hours. 

This is such a blatant disregard for the coronavirus advice provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other state and federal entities. I’m concerned that someone may come through my office that shows no symptoms of the disease, but may be a carrier of the coronavirus. All other county offices have closed or moved to “essential personnel only,” while we’re still at our desks like there’s nothing to be concerned about. 

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Our state government even passed HB1647 to authorize administrative leave with pay so that we could reduce staff as necessary. Yet, we’re still all here. I’m grateful that the front-end of our department is closed to the public so our applicants can’t get a referral to come see me. That has slowed visitors. I guess I just needed to vent. Administration isn’t listening to our concerns. We’re not doing enough in Southeast Mississippi to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Concerned in the South

Dear Concerned,

I want to start by telling you what I tell anyone who I meet who is working at the moment. Thank you. I am writing this from home, but I am painfully aware that there are people who are going to work, and many may not be happy about it. They are both seen and unseen: people working in supermarkets, bodegas, dry cleaners, cafes, restaurant kitchens, food delivery and, yes, taxi, bus, UBER, +5.22%  and Lyft LYFT, +5.72%  drivers. 

As you said, you are not currently in the position of dealing with members of the public all day long. That would, arguably, put you at a higher risk. The downside is that you are rightly concerned that your health, and the health of others, and worry that you could become infected with COVID-19 and pass it on to a loved one in a high-risk group. Thus far, there have been 50 confirmed cases in Mississippi and one death. The number of actual cases, of course, is likely higher.

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The government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “general duty” clause states that an employer should provide a safe environment and “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees” and “shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.”

 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention merely advises employers to “emphasize staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees.” Employees are protected from retaliation if they refuse to take on an assignment or do anything that they consider to be unsafe, but there is no hard-and-fast definition of what is deemed unsafe. It’s judged on whether a “reasonable” employee would also consider the situation unsafe.

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Is a worker at a supermarket working in an unsafe environment if they’re wearing gloves, and if customers are allowed into the store on a staggered basis? My own take (not a legal one) on your current situation is that there is no immediate clear and present danger (my terminology again) to your health, although you are obviously at a higher risk than someone who is working remotely and/or self-quarantining. That situation, of course, may change. 

Use hand sanitizer, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, keep a respectable distance from colleagues where possible. (Six feet is recommended, but that may not always be possible for you.) Bring your own utensils and mug. If you forget, wash plastic cutlery under soap and water thoroughly before using it. Be mindful of touching everything from buttons on elevators and soap dispensers to coffee machines: Coronavirus may last longer on some surfaces than other.

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If you are in a high-risk group — by virtue of your age or because of a preexisting condition, including cancer, diabetes, hypertension, or any other ailment that may otherwise suppress your immune system — you should be self-quarantining. It’s a complex issue. (Take this Lyft driver, who is worried about putting food on the table and uses Febreeze to mask the stench of Lyson, and the delivery guy who sees it as his mission to keep on trucking.)

Please update us on how you’re doing and, once again, thank you for working. It’s an important reminder that not everyone has the luxury — or the choice — to work from home.

Coronavirus update:

As of Friday, there were 255,305 confirmed cases and 10,444 deaths worldwide, according to data from the database of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering; the database also reported 87,351 recoveries. The U.S. has had at least 14,322 confirmed coronavirus cases and 210 deaths.

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