Returning to work in Pennsylvania? Here’s what your employer must do to protect you from the Coronavirus.

Returning to work in Pennsylvania? Here’s what your employer must do to protect you from the Coronavirus.

Monique Bolsajian

Since April 1st, Pennsylvania has adopted strict, statewide stay-at-home measures to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.


As of now, there are over 70,000 confirmed cases in the state.


Pennsylvania recently released a roadmap to lifting stay-at-home orders, dividing the state’s reopening into three phases: red, yellow, and green. The red phase is the most restrictive, and the green phase has the least number of restrictions.  


Movement from one phase to the next occurs on a county level. 


Click here to see an interactive map that displays your county’s phase of reopening.


As the curve flattens and stay-at-home orders are gradually lifted, many Pennsylvanians are wondering what their return to work will look like. 


If you live in Pennsylvania and are worried about going back to work, here are some important things that your employer must do to protect you from the Coronavirus. 


Steps All Employers Should Take


Returning to work will look different based on your industry, work environment, the number of other employees you work with, and how many members of the public you interact with day-to-day. 


However, the Governor of Pennsylvania released  guidelines that employers should follow when reopening, regardless of industry or phase of reopening. 


These guidelines include:


  • Ensuring workspaces are being disinfected thoroughly and often, and that employees have access to cleaning materials and hand sanitizer,

  • Maintaining physical distancing guidelines,

  • Ensuring employees know to stay home when sick,

  • Giving individuals designated times to enter and leave the building, to stagger the number of people who will be at the worksite at any given time,

  • Providing masks to all employers and making it mandatory that they wear masks while at work,

  • Conducting meetings and trainings virtually where possible,

  • Creating a crisis plan in the event that an employee or customer is known to have contracted the Coronavirus.


There are also additional guidelines that apply depending on your county’s phase of reopening. View a complete list of these guidelines here


Additional guidelines also apply depending on your industry.


View guidelines for the restaurant industry here.


The most important thing to do is to reach out to your employer to discuss the level of exposure you think you will have when you go back to work, as well as your employer’s plans for implementing these safety guidelines. 


If possible, reach out to them before your workplace resumes in-person services so that you can be prepared for what your return to work will look like. 


How Low-Risk Employees Should Be Protected


According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) national guidelines, low-risk employees are defined as those who do not frequently need to come within six feet of physical contact with the public to complete their job duties. 


These employees also do not need to come into contact with individuals who have tested positive for, or who are potentially infected with, the Coronavirus at their workplace. 


Employers with low-risk employees in Pennsylvania will need to follow the state’s minimum guidelines above, but will not need to provide additional Personal Protective Equipment, like N95 masks and gloves, or implement additional measures. 


Regardless of risk level, the Pennsylvania Department of Health encourages everyone to wear face masks – even cloth ones - when interacting with others to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. 


Note that wearing a face mask does not mean you don’t need to follow physical distancing guidelines.


Employers should be sure to monitor data released on the CDC website to stay up-to-date with any new guidelines that may be released.


How Medium-Risk Employees Should Be Protected


Medium-risk employees are people whose jobs require them to frequently interact with the public within physical distances of six feet. These employees may interact with people who are not yet confirmed or thought to have the Coronavirus, but who could have contracted the virus.


Guidelines for these employers include:


  • Installing physical barriers at employee workspaces,

  • Providing face masks to both employees and the public,

  • Posting signs with safety measures in visible areas,

  • Limiting customer access to workspaces, 

  • Considering extending remote work if possible,

  • Ensuring that employees have access to health screenings and resources. 


Common Personal Protective Equipment for medium-risk employees might include face masks, gloves, or other protective outerwear such as gowns. Additional protective gear will vary depending on specific job duties.


How High-Risk Employees Should Be Protected


High-risk employees are employees who come into close and frequent contact with individuals known to have the Coronavirus, such as frontline healthcare and medical workers. 


Employers at healthcare facilities will need to put a large number of safety measures in place. These include:


  • Providing alcohol-based hand rubs with a minimum of 60% alcohol for decontamination,

  • Installing and maintaining air-handling systems,

  • Isolating COVID-19 patients, or grouping them together where isolation is not possible,

  • Providing additional trainings and education to limit the spread of the virus, and to ensure that employees immediately report symptoms,

  • Closely monitoring the physical and mental health and well-being of all employees.


High-risk employees should use the same Personal Protective Equipment that medium-risk employees are recommended to use. High-risk employees may also need respirators, goggles, and/or face shields depending on their specific role. 


Additional protective equipment, such as surgical gowns or aprons, may be required for high-risk workers in mortuary or laboratory settings. 


How Employees in Vulnerable Populations Should Be Protected


Employees who belong to vulnerable populations can be defined in two ways: 


  • Those who have underlying health conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, that would make them particularly vulnerable to the virus, 

  • Those who are 65 years of age or older. 


Employers should avoid designating their employees as belonging to vulnerable populations. Instead, employees should tell their employers that they belong to these groups.


Vulnerable employees might want to consider continuing their work remotely for as long as it is possible. 


Underlying medical conditions that put people at risk for the Coronavirus are often protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. This means that if you return to work, you are entitled to ask your employer to make accommodations for you. 


These accommodations might look like a change to your job duties that would allow you to continue your work from home, or changing your work schedule to limit your exposure to other people.


Your employer may ask you for a note from your doctor explaining your medical condition and how it makes you vulnerable to the virus.


On the other hand, employers cannot stop you from returning to work if you are defined as a part of a vulnerable population.


If you have designated yourself as a member of a vulnerable population due to a medical condition and your employer isn’t making reasonable accommodations, Court Buddy can help you find an attorney to assert your rights.


What to Do if Your Employer Isn’t Meeting These Guidelines


You have the right to protect your health and safety. 


If you don’t think your employer is meeting appropriate safety guidelines, try having a conversation with your employer. They might choose to make modifications after hearing your concerns.


If your employer does not address or fix the issues, you can file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 


You are also protected under law to refuse to partake in dangerous work if your situation meets the following requirements:


  • You have asked your employer to fix the safety issues and they have not done so,

  • You genuinely believe that completing your job tasks and duties would endanger your health and safety,

  • The danger is urgent and there isn’t time to file a complaint with OSHA. 


If you refuse to work for the above reasons, be sure to compile any documents that would show proof that your situation meets these requirements. One example might be the series of emails that you sent your employer asking them to address a safety issue. 


You are protected under law against retaliation from an employer for reporting any health or safety issues. Contact OSHA as soon as possible if your employer retaliates against you for filing a complaint or for refusing to work.


If your employer isn’t taking necessary precautions and you feel your health and safety is in danger, you may want to seek legal advice. Court Buddy can match you with an attorney who can help.


If you were recently laid off, or chose to quit your job due to unsafe working conditions, unemployment relief and resources may be available.


Americans in most states are typically eligible to receive unemployment relief for 26 weeks. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, however, the CARES Act allows states to offer “13 additional weeks of federally funded Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Assistance (PEUC) benefits to people who exhaust their regular state benefits.” 


Pennsylvania has decided to extend these benefits by another 13 weeks through the end of 2020. 


If you need more resources or information regarding unemployment relief or getting connected with an attorney, we can help -- visit LawChamps' Resource Directory for assistance, or contact us.


This article is intended to convey generally useful information only and does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions expressed are solely those of the author, not LawChamps.

Monique Bolsajian

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