The coronavirus pandemic has raised many unprecedented legal questions, particularly regarding an employer’s liability if an employee or customer contracts an infectious disease on company premises. While many state legislatures have already moved to shield businesses from such litigation, we were interested in hearing public opinion about this controversial issue.
Proponents of liability protections for businesses argue that it’s difficult (if not impossible) to prove that a worker or customer contracted the disease in the place of businesses since it’s so widespread throughout the general public, which is why businesses shouldn’t be “on the hook” legally for such infections.
On the other side, opponents argue that dolling out blanket liability protections for businesses gives them a free pass to ignore safety recommendations and rules out any consequence of recklessly endangering customers and employees by exposing them to the virus.
So in our most recent Scholarship Essay Contest, we decided to see where a handful of college students stood on this issue by asking the following prompt question:
“What legal obligations and duties should employers and businesses owe workers and the public to protect them from diseases such as coronavirus?”
Interestingly, all of our respondents agreed that employers and businesses owed some moral and legal responsibility to protect workers and the general public from the coronavirus. Such protections included:
- Enforcing local mask mandates
- Following social distancing recommendations
- Cleaning and sanitizing frequently
- Providing proper PPE
- Offering paid leave to sick employees
- Being transparent about their efforts
While we ultimately had to choose just 1 winner, we received a number of responses that were well-written, thoughtful and worth sharing. We invite you to continue reading to view excerpts from some of our favorite submissions and learn where some of today’s college students (and future workers) stand when it comes to employer liability. Then, share your own opinion by leaving a comment at the bottom.
Essay question: What legal obligations and duties should employers and businesses owe workers and the public to protect them from diseases such as coronavirus?
Victoria S., Southern New Hampshire University (scholarship winner):
“While being sick at home, I personally believe every employee should be covered by their employers in order to financially survive. In conclusion, shortening the open business hours and employee shifts are important as well. In fact, many employers have temporarily and permanently closed their businesses due to the outbreak. It is extremely important that employers educate themselves about the coronavirus by staying in touch with health insurance companies and other businesses.
It is the employer’s job to enforce these laws on to their employees and manage the business making sure all procedures and rules are followed correctly. Unfortunately, if an employee is not listening to the rules and law obligations, he or she should then be fired and asked to leave the premises. These requirements and duties are especially important to ensure that we are cautious and safe during this pandemic outbreak.”
Jolene M., University of Kansas:
“Though most companies are showing some responsibility to lessen the spread of the coronavirus, some are not doing anything different than before… many major corporations have set standards for their stores to follow, but without a law and consequences to uphold all locations, it has become evident this is not enough. While there are some certain federal standards, like OSHA, something like the coronavirus is unprecedented, and uncharted waters… The local governments need to work with doctors, hospitals, and research facilities to find these answers.”
Dashonda G., Spelman College:
“When you or your neighbor is sick, your employer should understand the days needed to quarantine. If businesses are continuing to open regardless of shutdowns, then they are dismissing the health of their employees who are putting their health in danger due to factors contributing to modern life, such as bills, groceries, etc. Businesses should legally be obligated to pay for their employees’ sick leave regarding COVID -19. In the midst of this pandemic, employers should do everything in their power to protect their employees from the dangers of Covid-19, providing everything necessary to keep the likelihood of the virus spreading in their establishment(s) low.”
“The precautions that employers and businesses should take will not only give their employees piece-of-mind but also their customers. Knowing that establishments are actively attempting to prevent COVID-19 and other diseases make customers feel safe shopping there.”
Bailey G., Marquette University:
“The number one thing they owe is transparency. If there are outbreaks of disease in a company, or with any of the company’s customers, businesses should be legally obligated to inform the public and their workers of that information. Companies who exercise transparency will help build trust back into communities and let the public know that they value human life and well-being over business profits. This is necessary in order to ensure that appropriate preventative measures are in place to prevent such outbreaks and enable the public to hold companies accountable for their place of business.”
Reba P., ECPI University:
“Employers on all levels have a direct responsibility to protect their employees from COVID-19 for two very simple and very important reasons. Firstly, there is the moral burden that Employers should have which is to ensure their employees go home at night in the exact same condition that they arrived at work in the morning. Secondly, there is a direct financial component that comes with having a healthy, vibrant workforce of healthy employees that don’t call in sick, who don’t infect others, and who don’t transmit potentially fatal diseases to coworkers and customers.
Not only do healthy employees increase productivity and morale inside of an office, it also spares an employer from having to go through the expensive process of constantly retraining new employees… it is in the best interest of our nation and of our businesses to limit the effects of this deadly disease.”
Markyla P., Texarkana College:
“The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) was passed in 1970 to prevent workers from being killed or otherwise harmed at work. Businesses are also required to compensate people who are hurt or injured on their property through business insurance and settlements. These acts and legal requirements perfectly sums up the legal obligations and duties business owners owe employees and the public.
Businesses should do everything in their power to prevent employees from being harmed in a work environment that should include catching an infectious disease, and they should take responsibility and compensate customers if they contract COVID on their watch. The business owners should also be required to inform the public and employees of information concerning their health.”
“We must also remember that businesses and business owner’s reach can only go so far. The general public and employees have to hold up their end of the bargain as well which includes respecting and adhering to the rules and regulations of the business owner’s in regards to their own safety and those around them.”
Matthew G., Nova Southeastern University:
“Recently, in my torts class, we began to study and discuss the principle of duty of care. In our present situation, duty of care gives employers a legal obligation to act with a foreseeable and reasonable standard of care so as to not create unreasonable risks of harm to their employees. The standard of care is usually measured by that of a reasonable prudent person, and an employer’s duty should be measured objectively. If employers do not act under an expected standard of care, then they have committed a breach of their duty to their employees and customers. The essential issue posed is what specific standard should be applied to a business owner’s duty of care.
The threat of legal action should influence any employer to commit to an adequate standard of care for his or her employees. In addition, a business’ reputation can either be strengthened or weakened depending on whether they take necessary precautions in combating and slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Employee health and wellness is paramount to a successful business. Employers should be held to the adequate standard of care to protect their employees from unprecedented struggles, such as the coronavirus, just as they would for any other health and safety issues.”
Kamari D., Morehouse College:
“Arguably, the most important way to combat any disease is with disinfection and cleaning. Businesses should be required to clean and disinfect surfaces more routinely than usual. This is to prevent any bacteria left from customers or workers from spreading to the rest of the store, or possibly infecting someone else. To add on, I believe that businesses should provide their staff with necessities such as disinfectant wipes, cleaning sprays and supplies, gloves, and masks to help keep their homes COVID-free.
Lastly, companies should have to pay the medical bills for their employees that have contracted fatal diseases from their workplaces. It is the least that they can do, because the employee was working to make the company more money. Also, they should provide free tests.”
Josphat M., New York University:
“Trust, respect, and integrity should provide the foundation for legal obligations and duties of employers and businesses.”
“Workers and the public should be able to trust that employers and businesses are protecting them from harmful diseases. One way that trust is established is by enforcing compliance of standards established by regulating authorities.
Respect for employees and customers should also be at the core of protecting them from harmful diseases. These individuals work hard and patronize businesses. They have families at home and are parts of larger communities. So many of them—even during the most difficult times of the coronavirus shutdowns—show up to work on the front lines and use their limited funds to support their beloved local shops and restaurants. They are owed respect, and employers and businesses can demonstrate this respect by making their safety a priority. And even when the law doesn’t require it, employers and businesses can go the extra mile by putting even greater safety measures in place. For example, they could stagger shifts and provide personal protective equipment to workers and customers.
The principle of respect means that laws should also protect workers who get sick. Paid leave should be provided to workers so that they do not have the incentive to go to work when they are sick and possibly infect fellow workers or the public. And although it is a difficult balancing act, the law should require that employees and the public be informed of infections while at the same time respecting the privacy of sick workers.
Finally, showing integrity by “walking the walk” should be a part of the legal obligations of employers and businesses. Safety rules—as established by scientists and medical professionals—should apply to all levels of an organization, even up to the corporate suite. If customers must wear masks and sanitize their hands, then all workers—from the front line workers to the managers—should strictly comply with the same guidelines.”
Veronica M., Pepperdine University:
“From a legal standpoint, employers must establish their intention to protect the public and its workers by acting preemptively through a written prevention plan that is communicated and enforced. The program must detail specific procedures that halt the virus’s spread like disinfecting surfaces, access to hand sanitizer, respiratory etiquette training, and spacing workers at least six feet apart. Further, employers need to enforce the plan and implement consequences for workers who display a reckless disregard for the program. Failing to do so constitutes negligence, which should be grounds for a lawsuit.”
Darlene S., University of Phoenix:
“I believe the legal obligations and duties owed to workers and the public by employers and businesses to protect them from diseases such as (Coronavirus) should be given high priority in order to maintain and stabilize health concerns and lessen fatalities.”
Brittany M., University of Phoenix:
“One of these legal obligations that should be put into place is the six feet apart from each other.
A duty that these employers should have in place to protect their employees and the public is definitely making sure that everything is being disinfected frequently, while every so often the employees are handwashing to help prevent the spread of these viruses and germs.
Another obligation that these employers should have in order to protect their employees and the public would be making sure that everyone is wearing a mask. Even though these masks may be uncomfortable to some, they help protect one another by limiting germs from coughing, sneezing, or from spit when a person speaks.
Businesses and employees should be obligated to make sure that their place of work is safe for their employees and the public. Making sure that their businesses are clean and sanitized is very critical. Making sure that employees are not coming to work sick and are frequent hand washing while also wearing masks is huge as well.
Following these simple obligations, duties, and guidelines can save so many businesses, can protect so many employees and employers, and can also protect the public as well.”
Now it’s your turn! We want your feedback
What are your thoughts about employer liability for the coronavirus? Should a business be liable if a worker or customer gets sick?
Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.
If you’d like to check out our past contest winners and discussions, or you want to participate in our next contest, we invite you to visit our Scholarship page for more information.
Finally, thanks to all of the students who participated in this essay contest!