How many times have you heard or thought this lately:
“We’re living in an unprecedented time.”
Although it’s starting to sound like a cliché, it’s the truth. Nothing about the way we are living and working right now is normal, and it likely won’t be for quite a while.
COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way most of us go to work (or work remotely, as the case may be). But if you are heading to a work site or office, there are likely new rules to keep in mind that are designed to keep you and your coworkers safe.
Many employers have specific policies with respect to sick days, but there have long been problems with employees following them. For instance, an employee might come to work when they feel sick because they have already used their sick time, don’t have enough sick time, or are worried about repercussions from taking time off.
While that might have been okay (though never a good idea) if you had a head cold or another mild virus, it’s unacceptable in this time of COVID-19. In fact, your employer should be doing everything in their power to prevent anyone with symptoms of illness from coming in to work.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
We use the term “symptoms of illness” in broad terms because, unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a list of coronavirus symptoms that includes several things that are also common to colds, the flu, gastrointestinal viruses, and other common illnesses.
Without a positive COVID-19 test result, you can’t differentiate between whether your symptoms are COVID-19 or some other type of illness.
Symptoms of COVID-19 include:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Certainly, we all hope that none of us ever needs to worry about COVID-19 affecting our work or personal lives. But for the moment, that’s the reality on every corner of the globe.
What does it mean if I have to quarantine?
If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or if you’re at risk for infection because you’ve been exposed to a person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, a quarantine keeps you separate from other people so you don’t spread the illness.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people who might have been exposed to the virus are expected to quarantine. Quarantining means staying within the boundaries of your own home or property and not leaving for any reason, except to seek medical care.
There are 2 primary reasons why you need to quarantine even if you don’t feel ill:
- There are a significant number of people who are positive for COVID-19 but who never experience symptoms. They are contagious and can spread the virus to others without even knowing they have it.
- A person who does become ill with COVID-19 is most contagious in the 2-3 days before they begin to experience symptoms.
What’s the difference between quarantine and isolation?
Quarantine keeps you away from people outside your household.
Isolation keeps an infected person away from others in their own home.
A person should isolate if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or if they have tested positive, even if they have no symptoms. If possible, these people should stay in a separate room from other household members, use a separate bathroom, and avoid contact with other household members and pets. You should also avoid sharing items like towels, cups and utensils, and wear a mask if you do need to be around another member of your household.
What’s considered “close contact”?
If you’ve received orders to quarantine, it’s likely because you either have COVID-19 or were within close contact with someone who does.
“Close contact” is when:
- You were within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more (masked or unmasked);
- You were a caregiver to someone in your household who has COVID-19;
- You had direct contact (through hugging, kissing, etc.) or shared eating or drinking utensils with someone who has COVID-19; or
- Someone with COVID-19 coughed or sneezed on you, or you were exposed to their respiratory droplets in some other way.
Arizona unemployment benefits and a return to work
In general, federal and Arizona state law mandates that if you’ve been called back to work and you refuse to return, you would lose your unemployment benefits. The Arizona Department of Economic Security offers only a few exceptions.
If one of these situations applies to you, you can continue to be eligible for unemployment benefits:
- You have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
- You have symptoms of COVID-19 and are waiting to get a test or awaiting results.
- A member of your household has COVID-19, or you’re a caregiver for someone in your family or household who has COVID-19.
- A child or other person in your household can’t attend school because it’s closed, and you need to provide childcare as a result. If your child’s school offers the option for in-person instruction but you choose remote instruction, the school is considered open and you would be expected to return to work.
- You can’t physically go to work because you’re under a mandated quarantine or you need to quarantine following out-of-state travel.
- You’ve been told by a government agency or healthcare provider to quarantine because of COVID-19 concerns.
- You are considered high risk for COVID-19 because of conditions that include:a. Being age 65 or older;b. Living in a nursing home or long-term care facility;c. Underlying health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease; or
d. A member of your household is at high risk for COVID-19.
Your unemployment benefits claim closes when you return to work. If you are 65 or older or if you have a medical condition that makes you a high risk for COVID-19, you might have good cause to continue receiving unemployment benefits if your employer does not offer you a safe workplace.
Can I choose to stay home if I’m afraid of getting COVID-19?
If you’re fortunate enough to have paid time off to use, that could be your best option. But if not, you might not have a lot of choices. If teleworking isn’t feasible, you might be required to return to work.
The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) do not cover self-quarantining.
However, a federal coronavirus emergency bill requires an employer with fewer than 500 employees to offer FMLA leave for 12 weeks (2 weeks unpaid, 10 weeks at ⅔ pay) for a parent who can’t work since their child’s school or daycare is closed because of COVID-19. This excludes first responders and healthcare workers.
While lots of Americans are nervous about returning to work because of the risks of catching the virus, there are others who are eager to be at work because they don’t want to risk losing their paychecks. Both sentiments are important and valid.
The Arizona Shared Work Program allows an employer to reduce hours and spread the time across 2 or more workers on the payroll, but still allows a worker to collect unemployment benefits for lost hours.
In other words, rather than laying off a portion of the workforce, an employer can instead reduce hours, keep the same number of employees working, and employees can still collect a portion of wages with benefits.
Arizona has made some temporary changes to the program in order to provide additional benefits during the pandemic. These include:
- Temporary increase in the maximum reduction of hours from 40% to 60%. In other words, an employer can reduce work hours up to 60% and still qualify for the program.
- An employer won’t be charged with layoffs that would normally affect their unemployment insurance rating and increase costs.
- Employees would qualify for federal pandemic unemployment compensation.
When to return to work after COVID-19
If you’ve been ill with COVID-19, tested positive, or been exposed to someone with the virus, there are guidelines for when it is safe to return to work.
You had COVID-19 or symptoms of COVID-19
You may only return to work if it has been:
- At least 10 days after the first symptoms, and
- At least 24 hours fever-free (without the assistance of fever-reducing medication like Tylenol or ibuprofen)
Other symptoms should have improved as well, though some (like a loss of taste and smell) might last for weeks or months. Those types of ongoing symptoms do not require you to remain home from work.
If you have a weakened immune system or another health condition, you might need to isolate for longer than 10 days. You should consult your doctor to find out when it would be safe for you to return to work.
You had a positive test for COVID-19 but didn’t experience symptoms (asymptomatic)
You may return to work 10 days after your positive test if you have no symptoms.
You might continue to test positive for COVID-19 for several months after your illness, but that doesn’t mean you’re contagious to others. If you’ve had symptoms and recovered, you don’t necessarily need to be tested again unless you develop new symptoms or are exposed to another person who has the virus. It’s rare to be re-infected, but there are some documented cases of reinfection.
Because this is a new virus, scientists don’t yet know how long immunity will last. If you become ill again after you’ve recovered from COVID-19, you should return to quarantine and treat the new illness the same way you would treat COVID-19 unless your doctor specifies otherwise.
General CDC workplace guidelines for COVID-19
- Every person should wear a face covering to contain their respiratory droplets unless they have trouble breathing or can’t remove it without help. Employers should educate employees about when and how to properly wear masks.
- Employees should be properly trained on signs and symptoms of infection, staying home when ill, social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand hygiene.
- Employees should be encouraged to take the stairs instead of using a crowded elevator, and the employer can, if possible, designate “up” and “down” stairwells to avoid people passing each other within a small distance.
- Employers should attempt to mark pathways to help foot traffic maintain a consistent direction and help people keep a social distance of 6 feet from others.
- Design workspaces so that employees are at least 6 feet away from each other and not facing one another.
- Limit shared areas like break rooms, entrances, lobbies, etc.
- Be sure that there are ample handwashing stations or hand sanitizer available. Hand sanitizer should be 60% alcohol and contained in touch-free dispensers.
- A workspace should be well-ventilated so that there’s the maximum amount of fresh air possible with humidity maintained at 40%-60%.
- Consider “cohorting,” or creating small groups of workers who only interact with each other. Limit travel and conduct as much business virtually as possible.
- Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, light switches, kitchen appliances, bathrooms, and other areas that workers are touching regularly. Try to avoid sharing equipment like phones and keyboards.
- Limit visitors. If possible, screen any non-employees for COVID-19 symptoms before they enter the building.
Can I get workers’ compensation if I caught COVID-19 at work?
Workers’ compensation insurance usually doesn’t cover a community-spread illness because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to prove that you caught the illness through exposure at work. However, Arizona workers have some protections.
The Industrial Commission of Arizona has determined that a COVID-19 workers’ compensation claim cannot be categorically denied and a denial must be well-grounded in fact.
Determining if a claim related to COVID-19 can be covered by workers’ compensation, the ICA would look at specific factors that include:
- The nature of employment and the risk of contracting COVID-19
- If an identifiable exposure occurred at work
- If an identifiable exposure occurred outside of work
- The timing between an identifiable exposure and a positive test or symptoms
- Reliability of medical evidence that the work-related exposure caused you to become ill
What to do if you need to file a workers’ compensation claim for COVID-19 in Arizona
Like most other aspects of this virus, workers’ compensation claims are uncharted territory. After all, the virus has been with us only for a short time, relatively speaking.
First, focus on your health and recovery. But it’s also important to contact a workers’ compensation lawyer. One thing we’re starting to know about COVID-19 is that survivors can suffer “long-hauler” effects, which means that although you’re mostly recovered, there are certain symptoms that stay with you for months or even years.
There’s a lot we simply don’t know yet.
That’s why you want to know if the financial effects will continue to follow you, too, and if you’re looking at continued or ongoing medical treatment as a result of the virus.