Workers’ Rights: Answering Your COVID-19 FAQs

We’ve gotten a significant number of questions from workers whose jobs were affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Since every U.S. state has its own workers’ compensation laws, some questions don’t have a universal answer. But wherever federal laws or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines apply, we’ll list those answers below.

Can my employer force me to use my vacation time instead of sick time while I’m quarantined due to Covid-19?

It depends on the size of your employer. If your employer has 50-500 employees, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act should provide paid sick leave your quarantine period. The FFCRA requires all employers that size to provide 14 days of coronavirus-related paid sick leave starting April 1, 2020. Doesn’t matter if you’re full-time or part-time: If you have a 14-day mandatory quarantine, you’ll get paid for those days. If your employer has more than 500 employees nationwide (or less than 50), however, the new paid sick leave law doesn’t apply to you. However, your state may have specific policies in place about sick vs. paid leave, or that specifically cover coronavirus quarantines. We recommend contacting your state’s labor or workforce commission agency if your HR department cannot help you.

Legally, most U.S. employers can compel workers to use up to 14 days of paid time off for such situations. Many companies don’t differentiate between paid vacation time vs. sick days, so check your HR manual or employee handbook. Otherwise, if you feel your rights are being violated, we recommend getting free advice directly from an employment lawyer.

If my employer shuts down due to Covid-19, do they still have to pay me for the hours I worked before the closure?

Yes, if you’re an exempt employee (salaried, not hourly).

Can my company decrease our pay during this crisis?

This one’s harder to answer. Many companies are making reductions in benefits, furloughing workers, etc. due to Covid-19 closings. If you’re a union worker, we recommend talking to your union rep. If your employer announces a decrease in pay as a job-saving policy, you might not have any recourse. However, if your employer reduces your below the federal minimum rate of $7.25/hour, that’s illegal. Learn how the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) protects workers’ pay during Covid-19 outbreaks.

My employer told me to stay home for the next 2 weeks due to being in an international airport. I was saving my sick leave for an upcoming surgery. Can they force me to use my sick time for this?

It depends on your company’s HR policies, the size of your employer and the state you live in. It’s reasonable for your employer to ask you to self-quarantine for up to 14 days after traveling, in most cases. However, the best person for you to ask would be your company’s hiring manager or HR department. There is no federal or EEOC guidance that applies universally to this question.

Can my employer hold back pay because my county is under stay at home order and I am not able to come into the office?

If your employer’s open but you can’t come in due to a government-issued shelter-in-place order, the FFCRA might help you. Do you work for a company that has at least 50, but less than 500 employees? Then you might qualify for two weeks of paid sick leave since a Covid-19 outbreak stops you from working.  

Can I file for workers’ comp if I contract Covid-19 due to my working conditions?

Short answer: It depends. If you’re a healthcare worker or first responder who contracts Covid-19 while performing required work duties, then probably. In most other cases, it’s not considered an allowable, work-related injury or illness that qualifies for workers’ comp. Some states are considering these claims on a case-by-case basis. Before you file a claim, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do your required job duties specifically increase your risk of viral exposure to coronavirus, or likelihood of contracting Covid-19? For example: Are you an EMT, firefighter, nurse or work at an urgent care clinic?
  • Can you identify a specific source or workplace event that directly exposed you to coronavirus? For example: Did you contract the illness after treating patients already diagnosed with Covid-19?
  • Is work the only place where you’re potentially exposed to the virus and therefore at risk of contracting Covid-19? For example: Do you live in a county or municipality with no documented cases of community spread? If yes, did you isolate in your home, alone, and only had contact with others while you’re at work? (At this point, it’s very difficult to prove you couldn’t possibly have contracted Covid-19 through community spread.)

If you can honestly answer “yes” to all three bolded questions above, then you may qualify for workers’ compensation. Every state will consider workers’ comp claims on a case-by-case basis.

Is it legal for my boss to take my temperature at work?

Yes, according to updated EEOC guidelines released on March 19, 2020. However, public health authorities caution employers to use infrared digital thermometers only. This is because oral thermometers are invasive and could inadvertently spread Covid-19 infections from person to person.

Related: Hurt Financially By Coronavirus? Find Help Here

Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity,, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.