FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — As some people head back into their places of work during the ongoing pandemic, many want to know their rights if someone else that they're working with tests positive for coronavirus. So what exactly are your employers and fellow employees required to do to keep you safe?
We reached out to a Fairfax, Virginia-based employment law specialist and the owner of Lipp Law Firm, Kathryn Lipp, for answers.
Question: Does an employer have to inform their own employees that they have contracted the virus? What about if a fellow employee tests positive?
Answer: You should make it known as soon as you get symptoms or a positive test result if you are working in the office, potentially exposing others.
"If somebody thinks that they've been in contact with someone who has COVID, or maybe potentially has come down with COVID, then they have, I would say, the legal duty to make sure that they're informing their supervisor," Lipp said. "Now when it's a business owner, if that business owner has come in contact with other employees, they also need to notify people."
Q: How do D.C., Maryland and Virginia differ as far as what’s required?
A: Virginia currently has the strictest requirements, but in general, all expected actions are the same because of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) requirement to keep a safe and healthy workplace.
"Notification within 24 hours of the potential exposure is required by Virginia employers," Lipp explained. "It's a little tricky though, as you cannot say the name of the employee who is quarantining and who came in contact. The legal reason for that is the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, we want to make sure that we're keeping employee information confidential. Each employer in D.C. and Maryland or any other state is still subject to the overarching OSHA regime . . . If you're an employer and even though there's not a mandatory 24-hour notification window . . . I would notify people as soon as you can because you want to make sure there's no COVID outbreak on your watch. You don't want anybody to get hurt."
Q: What happens if you are not informed that someone in the workplace has contracted COVID-19 and you were in close contact with them?
A: Employees have many options when it comes to what actions they can take.
"You can go to OSHA and you can file an OSHA compliant, but you need to do that within a short time window," Lipp said. "If an employee believes that they contracted COVID, due to their employer's negligence or something like that, they need to let the employer know. An employer cannot retaliate against an employee for raising issues with regard to an unsafe workplace."
Q: What if someone gets the virus at your workplace that was within six feet of others and did not share that information? What kind of repercussions might that individual face?
A: Lipp said this is an unfortunate situation that she has already seen happen during the pandemic.
"I think if I know that one of my employees got COVID and willingly did not tell me, they're putting other employees at the workplace at risk," Lipp explained. "So I think what's on the line there is your career and your reputation, your good name. Now, you could be subject to some type of like a negligence lawsuit or you know, personal injury, something of that nature."
Although Lipp said facing a lawsuit is often a rare outcome, it is possible.
She said that It's always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to spreading the virus, so stay home if you're feeling sick and speak with your employer if you're concerned about any specific circumstances where you think your health may be at risk.