Employment Law Implications of a Refusal to Work Due to Fear of COVID-19

Source: Phillips L. McWilliams, Employee Benefit Plan Review, Vol. 74, No. 5, July-August 2020
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From the abstract:
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in America, one healthcare worker told the press: “Every day when I go to work, I feel like a sheep going to slaughter.” As states continue to reopen and businesses bring employees back to work, it is likely that some employees will feel this same way and refuse to return to work due to a fear of contracting COVID-19. When this occurs, employers need to know their obligations under various federal, state, and local laws – some of which have just recently been enacted. Failure to properly account for this patchwork of laws when faced with an employee refusing to work could expose a company to legal liability.

As an initial matter, before bringing the full workforce back, employers should analyze their workspace and determine which guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) and similar agencies they should implement. Employers should also communicate the new safety measures and procedures to the workforce prior to reopening. This will help alleviate concerns employees have about contracting COVID-19 while at work. Still, there will likely be employees who refuse to return to work. Discussed below are the laws employers must keep in mind when such a scenario presents itself.