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My workplace isn't following COVID-19 guidelines: What can I do?

Some employees are wondering what they can do if they feel like coronavirus safety guidelines are not being followed in the workplace

BEAUMONT, Texas — Under the occupational safety and health act, workers have a legal right to safe and healthful working conditions. With COVID-19, transparency can get a little tricky because everyone still has a reasonable right to privacy. 

You need the job to pay the bills. On the other hand, you can't help but worry about your health and safety. Normally, people who quit their jobs don't qualify for unemployment benefits, but James Bernsen with the Texas Workforce Commission said every situation is different. 

"If the business has not been helpful and has been very resistant to put in standard safety procedures, that would certainly be considered by us," Bernsen said. 

MORE | Your right to a safe and healthy workplace: OSHA

Restaurants, for example, should be following the CDC and state guidelines when it comes to face coverings and social distancing. 

"There could also be legal liability for restaurants who disregard CDC guidelines. If an an employee gets sick, they could possible sue the restaurant for exposing them to the danger," said attorney Jacob Monty. 

Jacob Monty's Houston law firm partnered with the Texas Restaurant Association when the pandemic first hit. He said while the CDC can't fine businesses, other organizations can. 

"Some restaurants have already been hit with OSHA investigations because employees called and said hey, this company was not complying with the CDC's standards," Monty said. 

 Monty said restaurants have a tough time balancing privacy needs and the needs of those in close contact with the sick individuals. 

"People are still entitled to some degree of privacy, however the interest of the coworkers should prevail in most cases," Monty said.

Helpful information from the Texas Workforce Commission:


Are employers in Texas allowed to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for their employees to return to work?

TWC currently has no authority regarding employees and vaccination requirements, but our agency follows Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines on issues like this. EEOC has not issued any guidance related to COVID-19 vaccinations, but has previously allowed companies to mandate flu vaccines, and did so for the 2009 Swine Flu. These rules have generally obligated employers to accommodate religious objections or medical conditions that would prevent someone from receiving the vaccine.

TWC will follow the guidelines set forth by EEOC or any legislation which may be passed by the Texas legislature.

If an employee gets covid-19, is the employer legally able to share any specific details on the case?

Unless the infected employee gives written authorization to release the information about their diagnosis, Texas and federal privacy laws would prohibit the release of the person's name to other coworkers. Employees have a right to medical privacy - other employees do not have the right to gossip about others if the gossip violates their right to be free of a hostile work environment or invasion of privacy. Legitimate concerns about health issues of employees should be discussed with appropriate supervisors, not with others who have no authority to do anything about it. The Society for Human Resource Management has a very good coronavirus FAQ page on its website at https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-news/pages/coronavirus-faqs.aspx. Under the heading "General Questions", the following appears: "Can I tell employees if a co-worker has tested positive for the coronavirus or other communicable disease? No. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) privacy rules restrict employers from sharing personal health information of an employee. Employers should inform employees that possible exposure has occurred in the workplace without disclosing any identifying information about the individual who tested positive."

Are there any privacy laws specifically related to covid-19 in the workplace?

No – the ADA, the HIPAA privacy rule, and Chapter 181 of the Texas Health and Safety Code supply all the medical privacy protection that is needed for Covid-19 and other health issues.

What are workers entitled to know about their colleagues? (rather, are they entitled to know anything about their colleagues health)

In general, workers are not entitled to know anything about their colleagues' health conditions. However, all workers are entitled to a safe and healthy workplace that meets OSHA and CDC standards. An employer that fails to comply with OSHA and CDC health and safety guidelines could be held liable for harm to others resulting from such a failure.

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