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COVID-19 Lawsuits and the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

September 10, 2020

Earlier this month, the Workplace Policy Institute (the “WPI”) released its annual Labor Day Report.  This year’s report focused on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on employers and employees, and the litigations between them which have been prompted by the pandemic. The WPI reported that as of the end of August, there has been nearly 600 employee initiated lawsuits (including 70 class action) as a result of COVID-19.  The majority of these cases have centered around terminations, exposure to the virus, and other workplace health and safety issues.  However, it is anticipated that in the coming months more suits will follow surrounding sick leave, whistleblower complaints, disability accommodations and violations of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (“WARN”) Act resulting from mass layoffs as the pandemic continues.  Until the United States has widespread inoculation of American workers with a COVID-19 vaccine, we see no end in sight to this uptick in lawsuits.  Therefore, we believe employers need to be extra vigilant in their approach to employees during these uncertain challenging times.

Many of these initial COVID-19 related lawsuits have been brought against employers providing healthcare services.  This makes sense as these organizations were for the most part the largest employers that remained open during the start of the pandemic.  We anticipate employers from other industry sectors will be next as the economy continues to reopen and employees return to work.

To date, the most common COVID-19 related claims have been for:

  • Wrongful termination;
  • Breach of contract;
  • Retaliation;
  • Workplace safety;
  • Bias based on disability/age; and
  • Violations of various federal and state leave laws.

We feel, as the authors of the report predicted, as more employers come back online, new litigations brought by employees will be directed at wage and hour claims and violations of the WARN Act.  Here are some thoughts for you to consider. 

Wage and hour concerns include the misclassification of employees stemming from the growing number of “Gig workers” entering the economy because their more traditional jobs have been eliminated as a result of the pandemic.   Courts will be faced with identifying the proper classification of these individuals as independent contractors or employees (see previous Brody and Associate article on this topic).   The liability for misclassification can be dramatic. 

Other wage and hour concerns include: 

  • Time keeping obligations (e.g., failure to properly track work time and specifically meal and rest breaks, for employees working from home during the pandemic);
  • Reimbursement for certain expenses an employee incurs while working at home when the incurred expense would cause the employee’s wage to drop below minimum wage;
  • Reporting time pay: certain jurisdictions require reporting time pay for employees who report to work and are sent home before the end of a shift and even when no work is performed at all during a scheduled shift. Issues regarding reporting time pay may also arise at the start of furloughs or an unforeseen office closure resulting from the pandemic; and 
  • Compensable work time and the compensability of pre-shift activities incurred as a result of the pandemic (e.g. temperature checks and other health screening activities).

Under the WARN Act and corresponding state laws, employers are required to give employees advance notice of mass layoffs and closures.  During the outbreak of a pandemic such as COVID-19 this timely notice obligation can be difficult, if not impossible, for employers to meet.  The WARN Act does provide exceptions to this notice requirement for business circumstances that were not reasonably foreseeable at the time notice was to be provided.  This exception may give cover to employers who failed to give timely notice to employees at the onset of the pandemic; however, the valid use of this exception loses some merit as the pandemic continues and businesses are able to give thoughtful planning to what their future workforce will look like.  Thus failure to provide timely notice is a likely focus for disgruntled employees.  

Brody and Associates is a boutique, management side employment law firm that is well versed in all the employment issues employers are now being faced with as a result ofCOVID-19.   Not only can we represent your company should you be the target of one of these types of lawsuits by your employees, but just as important, we can work prospectively with management on a daily basis to help avoid these types of actions in the first place.  If we can assist you, we are here to help.