In a matter of just a few short months, the coronavirus has introduced questions, challenges, and sacrifices into our lives at a speed and scale we never could have imagined. To protect our lives and our communities, we’re being asked to give up, at least for a time, our schools, workplaces, doctors’ offices, shopping centers, and entertainment venues. We’re even being asked to stay away from those we love.
But now, the question looms. What rights are we giving up in the workplace? How will the coronavirus affect the protections we expect and deserve?
One of the most difficult and sought-after questions right now is what impact the coronavirus will have on workers’ compensation insurance. Though the surge may have passed, the unavoidable reality is that it looks as if coronavirus is going to be a fact of life for a while.
The recent CARES Act is specifically designed to help businesses and their employees through this crisis, including covering virus-related medical expenses. But those funds aren’t going to last forever. It’s more likely that the effects of the virus will outlast the benefits of the Act than the other way around.
The virus is putting the millions of workers whose jobs can’t be converted to telework at risk of contracting the virus while on the job. Given the virus’s level of infectiousness, the amount of time an exposed individual must remain in quarantine, and the long recovery period for those who fall ill, that’s potentially millions of COVID-related claims on the horizon.
Additionally, families of workers who lost their lives after contracting the virus on the job may also be entitled to death benefits. In the end, with such massive payouts looming, there’s strong reason to expect insurance companies to fight COVID-related claims. That could cause long delays in compensation for workers and for the families who need it most.
Another significant concern is the chilling effect that the pandemic may have on the expectation of workers’ rights to a safe and healthy working environment. This has already played out in stark headlines across the major news media as frontline workers, first responders, as well as nurses and physicians, struggle to find enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to make it through a shift. Further, this is all happening on top of the already-hazardous working conditions that healthcare staff faced before the virus spread.
The risk of exposure to the virus because of inadequate PPE is so great that many healthcare workers are choosing not to go home to their families. The fear of exposing them to this lethal pathogen for which there is no vaccine is simply too great.
Likewise, obscure and outdated laws threaten to restrict workplace protections in other ways. For example, when the pandemic began to surge, the response of the cruise industry was infamously slow and misguided, resulting in the deaths of scores of passengers and crew members worldwide.
Despite that, due to a centuries-old maritime law that denies compensation for the families of those who are killed or injured while at sea, families are unlikely to receive any compensation for their losses. Indeed, it appears as if this law may be upheld even though the working environments provided by many of the cruise lines were demonstrably unsafe.
The pandemic is not only impacting working conditions and workers’ rights to compensation. It is also impinging on job security itself. The lockdown has all but decimated the global economy. In the span of just six weeks, the US careened from a record-high stock market to Depression-level unemployment. This has left businesses scrambling for solutions to ensure their survival.
Outside of transitioning to telework whenever possible, the first, and perhaps most obvious choice for many corporations across industries, from manufacturing to tech, has been to turn to automation. As the national food supply chain came under increasing peril, the shipping industry boosted the number of self-driving big rigs on America’s roads. As much of a benefit as these rigs may have been to a supply chain on the brink of collapse, the reality is that too rapid a transition to automation threatens workers’ job security.
The coronavirus epidemic has had a dramatic impact on nearly every aspect of our daily lives. In the long run, however, perhaps the most significant effects will be felt in the workplace. The danger is that, while attempting to cope with the pandemic and its aftermath, workers’ rights will gradually be eroded. Indeed, the pandemic has already called into question the entitlements which American workers might once have taken for granted, from the right to workplace health and safety to the right to injury and illness compensation and death benefits, to the right to a certain measure of job security. What remains uncertain is when, if, and how we can take those rights back.
Author Info: Noah Rue is a writer, a digital nomad, and a graduate of the lessons of life (primary) and also the University of Idaho. These days, Noah teaches English as a second language in lovely Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and moonlights as a content strategist for an American based marketing company.