What you need to know before heading back to work during a pandemic

Published: May. 6, 2020 at 10:05 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - As South Carolina slowly begins to reopen, many people are starting to return to work.

Recently a number of people have reached out with concerns when it comes to their health and safety in the workplace.

We talked to two employment attorneys about some of the rights employees have in South Carolina.

First and foremost its important that you know South Carolina is an “employment at-will state.”

“You can fire an employee at any time for any reason,” said Joseph Seiner, a Professor of Law University of South Carolina. “Similarly as an employee you’re not bound to any particular employer and you can leave your job at any time for any reason.”

Two of the main questions people have asked are what to do if their employer doesn't supply them with personal protective equipment, and is their employer required to give them PPE?

“If there’s an OSHA requirement or something like that, but I don’t think there is any right, it’s up to the employer to determine what their policies are,” said Ernie Peagler, a workers compensation attorney.

Looking at OSHA’s COVID-19 guidelines for South Carolina, they include ensuring social distancing for employees and customers, frequent handwashing, allowing sick employees to stay home, and providing basic workplace hazard education.

If you are a high-risk employee like a medical worker or a first responder OSHA does require you to wear PPE.

But because providing PPE is not an overall requirement for all workplaces, employees will still need to go to work even if their employer does not give them PPE.

If you choose not to go to work, the experts say you will not be able to file for unemployment over issues with PPE.

Instead, they recommend you bring your own PPE.

However, if your employer does not allow you to wear your own PPE and you are fired or dismissed for wearing it, that’s a different situation.

"Certainly you could absolutely file for unemployment, that would not be considered any type of voluntary quit on your part," added Seiner.

Even though OSHA does not include PPE in their general requirements, they do list PPE under their "ideas" section saying quote, "personal protective equipment may be helpful when social distancing and other protective measures are infeasible or not effective."

What about workers who just don’t feel safe returning to work for fear of coming in contact with COVID-19? Well, the answer to that question is still very much up for debate.

“So I’m not sure where the state of South Carolina is gonna come down on that. You can understand both sides of the policies,” said Professor Seiner. “You don’t want someone coming to work if they feel like they are going to get ill, or they are particularly susceptible or caring for someone who is susceptible, but then the flip side is, are you then incentivizing people to not go to work?”

Both legal experts recommended that if you are worried about returning to work that the best thing you can do is have a conversation with your employer. Let them know about your concerns and ask them what precautions and protocols are being put in place to protect you at work.

They also advise that you document what the employer says or to get it in writing.

WIS reached out to OSHA and are awaiting a response.

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