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Know Your Rights | How the Law Protects Workers' Health During COVID-19

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

A person in a mask grocery shopping. They are holding a lemon.

COVID-19 has forced all of us to take a good, hard look at our health and access to healthcare. While we wait for the global curve to flatten, many of us are experiencing heightened anxiety over how illness can affect our livelihoods.

How can you be productive while also protecting your health? And how can you bring up health concerns with your employer during coronavirus and beyond?

High anxiety

The shared global experience of living through a pandemic has sparked fear for our personal health and safety, as well as the health and safety of our loved ones, neighbors, and wider community. It has also highlighted how the threat of illness can bring “normal” life to a complete standstill.

The resulting anxiety asks us to confront some difficult questions, such as: 

  • If I get sick, will I lose my job?
  • Will I be able to work from home as I recover?
  • Will my employer-sponsored insurance cover my health expenses?
  • How do I manage having to care for a sick loved one?

People who have firsthand experience with severe or chronic illness—either their own or that of a family member—have been asking questions like these for a long time. Unfortunately though, these unprecedented circumstances now mean that more and more people are forced to consider these possibilities.

How employees are protected

In the US, there are two laws that protect the health and safety of employees: the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

  • OSHA safeguards employee and workplace safety by making sure employers provide an environment free from “…recognized hazards to safety and health, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive noise levels, mechanical dangers, heat or cold stress, or unsanitary conditions.” This law may seem more relevant for work that takes place in a factory, construction site, or laboratory. However, since coronavirus can spread from person to person, this law is now relevant to everyone —it mandates that employers take necessary steps to make sure you are not unnecessarily in harm’s way.
  • Generally, the ADA protects anyone with a disability or illness from discrimination. When it comes to your work, this means that you cannot be discriminated against based on your health status, and that if your employer is either a government or labor organization, or private one with 15 or more employees , it must make “reasonable accommodation” based on your needs. That means that if you are in a high-risk group during the coronavirus crisis , don’t be afraid to ask for accommodation—such as an extended work-from-home option—until it is safe for you to return to the office. That means that if you are in a high-risk group during the coronavirus crisis, you can ask for accommodation—such as an extended work-from-home option—until it is safe for you to return to the office. 

Ask your questions

Just as you are trying to figure out how to navigate today’s troubled waters, your employer is too. But if you have a question regarding how your employer will work with you in the case of a health emergency, do not be afraid to reach out to your manager or HR representative. You are not the only one asking these questions—the answers you get can help you feel more at ease or, at the very least, help you feel more prepared if you or a loved one falls ill. 

Talk to your employer

When it comes to figuring out how to work through illness—whatever your diagnosis—it’s important for you to be realistic about your needs and limitations. You’ll need to carefully weigh them against your strengths to determine what work obligations you can commit to as you take care of your health. 

This means:

  • Be clear about what your diagnosis means and what your recovery demands. Speak to your doctor, do your research, and be mindful of how you feel every day.
  • Be honest about your limitations
  • Evaluate what your current work commitments are. What are you currently working on? Which upcoming deadlines may be affected by your illness? 
  • Come up with a plan on how and when you can continue to work. This should be based on your recovery demands, limitations, and commitments. 
  • Speak to your manager about your diagnosis and plan. Let them know what your prognosis is and what they can expect from you in the short term.
  • Ask for what you need. Time off? Work from home? Adjusted work times? A new team collaborator? Don’t be afraid to let your manager know what you need to get your work done. 

Laws do protect you. But whether or not they directly apply to your specific health situation, keep in mind that, if possible, your employer will want to work with you for a mutually beneficial result. So, depending on the relationship you have with your manager, use your judgment as to how best to address your concerns. 

Pro Tip: If you have any concerns about being taken seriously, share a copy of your health records, if you feel comfortable doing so.

We’re in this together

The current situation is requiring many of us to be more mindful of health in general, and open about the specific anxieties and struggles we face in the workplace. And the more empathy we have for each other’s struggles, the closer we can get to innovating solutions that value our only real wealth: our health. 

You should never be made to feel like you must choose between employment and your health. Whether during the current pandemic or some other health issue, keep in mind that it is in your best interest to put your health first—in doing so, you’re protecting yourself and others.


Have you ever felt like you had to choose between your job or your health? Share your experience with us on Facebook.

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and creative coach in New York City. She helps women living with chronic illness and mental health challenges to pursue their passion projects without compromising their health.

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