Businesses are reopening. If you're older or sick, what happens to your job?

Laurence Darmiento, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

However, the issues involving vulnerable workers are even more complex.

Workers who are diabetic or asthmatic or have other conditions that are considered disabilities are offered special protections by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to provide so-called "reasonable accommodations" as needed. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act offers workers older than 40 protections against discrimination on the basis of their age.

Questions linger about whether and how such protections will shield workers who are older or have medical conditions in the time of the coronavirus.

"It's definitely a minefield for employers," said Walter Stella, a labor and employment attorney at Cozen O'Connor, which represents employers. "The traditional reasonable accommodation analysis requires employers to accommodate disabled employees so that they can continue to perform the essential functions of their jobs. The focus of the law is not to give employees a reasonable accommodation so that they don't get the coronavirus."

That legal analysis rubs up against the demands of employee advocates who say that providing a safe workplace is the fundamental duty of employers amid the pandemic. Practically speaking, though, Stella agrees that driving the interactions between employers and employees will be the issue of workplace safety as more businesses open with no proven therapeutics for COVID-19 and a vaccine possibly a year or more off.

In some places, a vulnerable worker may feel protected simply if social distancing, masks and other now-common safety practices are in place for all workers. That may not be adequate, though, elsewhere or in jobs that typically require close interpersonal interaction.


"It's kind of getting into the weeds, if you will, of looking at that workplace, looking at the jobs to figure out an accommodation," said Nellie Brown, a certified industrial hygienist and director Workplace Health and Safety Programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Making an accommodation is not always difficult. A vulnerable worker could continue to telecommute while others return to the workplace, or could be given an office with a closed door. In a factory, such a worker could be put at the end of the assembly line.

But those are simple examples and they may not be adequate. Among the most notable COVID-19 outbreaks have been meatpacking plants, where employees work in confined spaces on fast assembly lines, prompting complaints by labor of inadequate safety equipment and forcing temporary shutdowns.

And there are the situations facing workers like Ripke, who can't imagine how she could properly conduct her job either remotely or using a mask while practicing social distancing. "It's such a hands-on and close and personal position that I'm in. I'm working with small children. Kindergarten through fifth grade. They don't understand the hand-washing and the mask on the face," she said.


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