Can you be fired for not coming to work because of coronavirus?


AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you’re wondering whether you’ve got to show up for work amid the coronavirus pandemic, the short answer is yes. Ignoring a boss’s order to come it could cost you your job.

That’s according to Judy Orborn, an employment law attorney in Austin.

“An employer can fire you if you choose not to come to work,” Osborn told KXAN as she worked from home Monday. Osborn pointed out that Texas is an “at will” state, meaning you can be fired at any time, for any reason.

You can also quit your job at any time for any reason.

Many of the complaints sent to KXAN deal with questions about whether workers can be made to work while they might be dealing with childcare issues, school closings and even sickness. Unless you have personal time off you can use, you might be in trouble.

“If you’re in healthcare or emergency services those folks need you to be there and you could be fired if you don’t show up,” Osborn said.

We’ve heard from state agency workers complaining of not being allowed to work from home, from plant workers complaining about being forced to come into work while government offices are closed and from technology workers forced to perform their jobs in large groups.

Osborn said she fielded many calls Monday from employers looking to navigate the law when it comes to making workforce decisions as the pandemic begins putting a squeeze on the economy.

“Employers are really trying to switch to work from home, they’re brushing up their policies for remote work and of course many are already prepared for that. But, that only applies to certain industries and usually exempt-level employees. So, if you’re at a place — like the restaurant industry — where you’ve got to be present to work to get paid, you don’t have a choice and if you’re told not to come in, you don’t have pay and you don’t have a job,” Osborn said.

The only recourse: unemployment benefits. Those benefits are for employees who lose their jobs “from no fault” of their own. A layoff, for example, would qualify.

“How can an employee navigate when the employer says they have to be at work and they’re afraid to go — or they can’t go because of childcare or a sick family member?” Osborn asked during the interview. “For larger employers, there is the Family and Medical Leave Act, some have paid leave … there’s not a good answer. There’s not a good answer right now. That’s what makes this situation so sad.”

“If the employee has a reasonable basis for not going to work, that’s possibly the basis for an OSHA complaint for not providing a safe workplace. But, if the employer is helping with social distancing, they’re eliminating, they’re eliminating any in-house food buffets, they are requiring employees who are sick — coughing, fever — to go home, then the employer may be doing all they can do to provide a safe workplace. But, if they’re not, the employee might have a legitimate complaint and they should speak up,” Osborn said.

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