The coronavirus pandemic is radically changing the way companies do or increasingly don’t do business.
As people follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing, employers are finding they don’t need as many workers ― particularly for jobs that require a physical presence. (Telecommuting is an option for fewer than 1 in 3 Americans.)
Eighteen percent of working Americans have already had their hours reduced or been let go because of the coronavirus, according to a survey of 835 adults conducted Friday and Saturday. In the hard-hit airline industry, United Airlines is asking employees to volunteer for unpaid leave and Virgin Atlantic said it will ask staff to take eight weeks of unpaid leave during the next three months.
More employers will likely follow suit as businesses are increasingly affected by the pandemic.
Here’s what you need to know if your boss asks or tells you to take unpaid leave because of the coronavirus, including what rights you have and what actions you can take.
You could find yourself on unpaid leave during the pandemic, whether you need it or not.
Many, but not all, workers in America can take up to 12 weeks of medical leave for a serious health condition ― like COVID-19 ― or to care for a family member who is seriously ill. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employers can’t fire eligible employees for taking sick leave ― but they’re not required to pay the workers during the time off.
Under the proposed Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which passed the House over the weekend and is still pending in the Senate, some workers affected by the coronavirus outbreak would get the benefit ― temporarily ― of paid sick leave. There are many exceptions. The bill only covers companies with fewer than 500 employees, for example.
Even if your health isn’t being affected by the pandemic, your employer still might be.
If your boss is making you take unpaid leave related to the coronavirus, you may qualify for unemployment benefits. In California, for example, employees can get partial wage replacement payments if they lose hours due to COVID-19.
Donna Ballman, a Florida-based employment attorney and author of “Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed, or Sue the Bastards,” noted that whether you volunteer or are forced to take unpaid leave can make a big difference in whether you can qualify for unemployment benefits.
“If you are furloughed, laid off or forced onto an unpaid leave, you could qualify for unemployment or even temporary unemployment. Some states have temporary unemployment benefits,” Ballman said. “But if you voluntarily take that leave, then you may be disqualified.”
Can your boss force you to take unpaid coronavirus leave? Yes, if you are an at-will employee. The company can end your employment at its discretion as long as it’s not violating a contract or anti-discrimination laws, Ballman said.
“They can say, Take two weeks off or you’re fired. They can absolutely do that,” she said.
But check to make sure you’re not being illegally targeted for unpaid leave.
If you are being asked to take unpaid leave due to the coronavirus outbreak, see who else is on that list, Ballman advised. The lawyer said she is starting to hear of workers being unfairly targeted for unpaid leave because they are deemed a higher risk for COVID-19 by their employer. “It’s starting to happen, and it’s still illegal,” she said.
“If it’s all older employees, or people with disabilities, or people who are pregnant, then you might have a discrimination case. And coronavirus be damned at that point,” Ballman said. “You still can’t target older people or people with disabilities or pregnant people even if you think it’s in their best interest.”
When paid leave is not offered, you can try joining forces with your fellow workers.
One of the top recommendations when working through a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic is to seek clear communication from your boss. You deserve to know what your employer’s (possibly evolving) pandemic-related policies are, including how you will be paid or not during this time.
If you are an eligible employee, federal labor laws give you the legal backing to organize around this issue. “The National Labor Relations Act protects ‘protected and concerted activity’ on behalf of employees, which means two or more employees discussing work-related issues, including asking the employer to do something about them [having coronavirus-related paid leave]. They can’t be disciplined or retaliated against for doing that,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources.
Cappelli noted the group focus of the NLRA’s protections. The law doesn’t shield individual workers complaining about coronavirus leave issues to their boss, he said. Workers need to approach management as a group or send at least two people formally to speak on behalf of the group.
Recognize that even if you lobby for coronavirus paid leave along with your co-workers, the answer from your boss may still be “no.”
“You can definitely try banding together as a group. The reality, though, is that some employers, particularly smaller businesses, genuinely may not be able to pay people when they’re shut down,” said Alison Green, author of the Ask a Manager career advice site.
The pending sick leave bill makes provision for the financial pressures on small businesses, too. Under the legislation, companies with less than 50 employees would be allowed to seek an exemption to paying for sick and family leave due to the coronavirus.
Ultimately, your employer’s financial success is not within your control. But you can take steps if you recognize that your employer’s business is in trouble.
“Anybody in the cruise or airline industry or hospitality industry may need to seriously think about looking elsewhere at this point if they can’t hang on for what could be months,” Ballman said.
That’s easier said than done, she acknowledged. “Even the biggest companies are going to do hiring freezes or cutbacks.”
Now might be the time for employers and employees to work together on pay, leave and other issues made tougher by the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe you can “get together with co-workers to come up with a plan that benefits everyone,” Ballman said.