Houston business

What Are The Legal Obligations of A Business to Its Employees Around Coronavirus?

Houston Business Legal Issues

Written by Craig M. Kaiser, Founding Partner

Written by Craig M. Kaiser, Founding Partner

Written by Craig M. Kaiser, Founding Partner

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Trying times bring out a leader’s character, and chances are your character is being tested right now. As a business leader, you are operating at full capacity, needing more patience and resilience than ever before, trying to take care of your employees when we have some of the highest unemployment rates in our nation’s history. Businesses are having to close their doors temporarily and permanently, and others are trying to navigate new waters while their employees work from home or from a safe social distance.

Houston businesses have been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of April 3, Harris County’s “Stay at Home, Work Safe” order has been extended to April 30. This order has raised numerous questions among business leaders in Houston, whether their businesses have been deemed “essential” or not. We know many of you are wondering how to take care of your employees during this time and what legal obligations you have. The last thing you want during a shut-down is a lawsuit.

Below are a few legal guidelines to keep in mind as you decide how to keep your business running in a safe and healthy way.

Coronavirus Paid Leave

The U.S. Department of Labor passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to protect employees affected by the coronavirus, whether they have been affected directly and indirectly. This act requires employers to provide 10 days, or two business weeks, of full, paid time off for employees who meet the following requirements:

  • Employees who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and are seeking a diagnosis.

  • Employees who need to care for a child whose school or childcare facility is closed due to coronavirus.

  • Employees who need to care for a loved one who has contracted the virus or who has been instructed by a healthcare provider to be quarantined at home.

This act also provides up to 10 weeks of paid leave for an employee who needs to take extended time off to care for a child whose school or childcare facility is closed due to coronavirus. Employers are required to pay two-thirds of the employee’s regular salary or rate during this time. This only applies to employees who have been at your company for at least 30 days.

Note that this act applies to specific employers and private employers with fewer than 500 employees. Small businesses of fewer than 50 employees may be exempt from paying employees who need to take time off to care for children.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration Guidelines (OSHA)

OSHA

Texas abides by the federal OSHA guidelines. In the context of COVID-19, this means employers do have the right to ask any employee who is exhibiting symptoms of the virus to go home. You can also ask an employee to stay home if you know the employee has been exposed to the virus but isn’t exhibiting symptoms yet. Treat every employee equally and follow the same protocol for anyone who is exhibiting symptoms or has been exposed.

OSHA also requires employers to create a safe and hazard-free work environment for their employees. This will require a different degree of care, cleanliness, and protection during the COVID-19 pandemic. You are responsible for making sure your employees are abiding by any safety precautions and social distancing measures you or the powers-that-be have put in place.

If you haven’t already, create a written plan that will keep your employees as safe and healthy as possible. For example, the Texas Association of Homebuilders has created an extensive COVID-19 Exposure Prevention Preparedness and Response Plan that includes new social-distancing safety measures that employees must abide by. Creating documents and guidelines like this is crucial to keep employers protected by OSHA during this time.

Any violation of safety rules can be investigated by OSHA under the Interim Enforcement Response Plan for Coronavirus Disease 2019.

Furloughs and Layoffs

Furloughs and Layoffs

Inevitably, some businesses will have to furlough or lay off employees. Furlough is a temporary but required period of unpaid leave. Even if you choose to furlough rather than lay off your employees, your employees can and should apply for unemployment benefits on the first day of their furlough in order to receive the maximum amount of benefits. Due to the pandemic, Texas has waived the typical one-week waiting time for an employee to begin receiving benefits.

If you have laid off employees, know that unemployment benefits have not changed during the pandemic. All benefits are still available to employees who are laid off. Once a former employee has applied for unemployment, you will be notified, and you will be able to respond to the notification online. Be sure to explain that the context for the layoff was COVID-19.

If you have to furlough or lay off your entire staff or a large number of employees, you may qualify for the Texas Workforce Commission’s (TWC) Mass Claims Program, which will streamline the unemployment applications for all employees affected.

If you are a small business and were ordered to close your doors due to the pandemic, you may not have to pay unemployment benefits for your former employees under chargeback protection. To qualify, you would need a copy of your state- or locally-mandated shut-down order.

These are difficult times for all business owners. Few businesses have gone untouched by this pandemic and we know you probably have more questions about your legal obligations to employees, how this will affect your contracts, etc. We are here to help, and we are staying up-to-speed on any changes in legislation. Please contact us by calling us or completing the form below if you want to discuss any of these issues further. Together, we will navigate these dark waters and ensure your business is safe and healthy on the other side.

Resources & Links

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The following are helpful resources for employers compiled by the TWC:

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