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Phia Group Media


EMPLOYERS BEWARE: Handling Employee Absences Resulting from Coronavirus Quarantine

By: Philip Qualo, J.D.

The complex employment issues surrounding government actions to isolate the new and fatal strain rose to the level of national news this month, as more than 300 U.S. citizens were quarantined on a cruise ship in Japan after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the virus. After being quarantined for 14 days, the passengers were finally evacuated from the cruise ship on February 17th.  The U.S. government has confirmed at least 14 of those Americans tested positive for the coronavirus just before departing Japan. The majority of U.S. passengers who continued to test negative for the coronavirus, however, will now have to contend with another 14-day quarantine upon reentry into the U.S. Although these passengers are likely relieved to have survived the exposure to virus with their health intact, their eventual return to the workforce has many employers confused on how to treat these leaves of absence, and more importantly, whether they are required to allow them to return to their jobs at all.

Surprisingly, federal laws enacted to protect Americans from job loss as a result of illness or disability generally do not protect individuals who are unable to report to work as a result of isolation and quarantine, but do not themselves suffer from a serious health condition. For example, the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides job-protected leave for specific medical and family reasons. Employers covered under FMLA must provide unpaid leave to an eligible employee who is incapacitated from working because of their own serious health condition or when they need to care for a family member with a serious health condition. So on the one hand, for the Americans that were infected with the coronavirus, FMLA protections will clearly apply to the absences as a result of the quarantine as there is clearly a serious health condition present, assuming the employer is subject to FMLA and the employee satisfies other eligibility criteria. Additionally, an employee caring for a spouse, child or parent infected with the virus will also may also be entitled to FMLA leave. On the other hand, for those Americans and their immediate family members who tested negative but continue to be subjected to isolation and quarantine measures, however, the rule is not so clear cut. Technically, without a serious health condition, or at minimum, some evidence of documented symptoms, FMLA will likely not apply.

Despite the lack of federal protections for employees who are quarantined as a result of exposure to the coronavirus, terminating employees as result of absence caused by quarantine protocols could still result in significant liability for employers under state laws. Recognizing the lack of statutory protections for employees in prior pandemics where isolation or quarantine was necessary, several states already have laws that explicitly prohibit the termination of an employee who is subject to isolation or quarantine. For example, in Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Utah, an employer is prohibited from terminating an employee who is under an order of isolation or quarantine, or has been directed to enter isolation or quarantine.

For states that have yet to enact similar protections, there is an important exception to the employment-at-will doctrine that could still expose employers to liability when terminating an employee due to absences as a result of isolation and quarantine measures. Most states adhere to the common law employment-at-will doctrine, which generally allows an employer to terminate an employee from employment for any reason other than those prohibited by statute. Under the public policy exception, however, an employee may be deemed wrongfully discharged when a termination violates an explicit, well-established public policy. The public-policy exception is the most commonly accepted exception to the employment-at-will, recognized in the vast majority of states.

A claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy is grounded in the belief that the law should not allow an employee to be dismissed for engaging in an activity that is beneficial to the public welfare. As mandatory quarantine protocols have been implemented to protect the public at large from the coronavirus, a court could reasonably conclude that the quarantine of individuals during a pandemic serves the public good and that the termination of individuals who are isolated or quarantined violates public policy.

It is important to keep in mind that quarantine protocols are not voluntary for Americans exposed to the coronavirus, but rather mandated by public policy. Therefore, employers should exercise caution when deciding how to handle employee absences that result from these necessary measures implemented to protect the public at large. As some state laws and public policy exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine could potentially expose employers to liability for wrongful discharge, we would recommend against terminating employees who have no choice but to comply with government efforts to isolate the deadly virus.  It is important to keep in mind that since the coronavirus can be spread before an individual demonstrates symptoms, the quarantine measures that have been put in place have likely already saved countless of lives, and should not be discouraged by employers.