Partner Nina Pirrotti’s letter published in The Hartford Courant: Coronavirus Letters: The employee who returns to work

Jun 14 2020

As it appeared on The Hartford Courant


A reader writes about the state beginning chapter two of the novel we have been all been living for the past few months, known as “Coronavirus.”

The coronavirus is novel in more ways than one. It’s a novel disease, yes, but it has also forced us to stretch in novel ways, including in our relationships to our places of work.

During the first chapter of the pandemic, employers had to devise new survival methods on the fly. Some, who were best positioned to do so, rose to the occasion and rallied. Curbside service for everything from food to dry goods became the new norm. Creativity blossomed as the situation became more dire. I even saw a car wash service offering a free N95 mask with every wash! Chapter one was about survival of the fittest, and it is too soon to discern the victors.

The options for employees impacted by their companies’ necessary adjustments have been less robust. For many, the only viable option is a grim one: apply for enhanced unemployment benefits and hope you can return to work before you lose everything.

Nonetheless, chapter one has yielded some positive developments for the employee. Perhaps most remarkably, many — employer and employee alike — who were dubious about the viability of remote work have discovered not only its possibility but perhaps even its preferability. This paradigm shift will particularly benefit women workers who otherwise were forced to make the Hobson’s choice between meaningful parenting and meaningful work and disabled workers for whom flexibility may be essential.

Now, chapter two has begun. Businesses are opening their doors and beckoning their workforce to return. For many, though, there remains a great deal of trepidation about walking through that door. Important questions loom large. For those who are ready, willing and able to return, how will they be kept safe? What will happen to them if they complain about an employer’s inadequate safety measures? For others who are either in vulnerable health or care for someone who is, will they have to choose between returning to work and forfeiting unemployment benefits? And what about those who are still battling COVID-19 — will their jobs be protected?

There is no “one-size fits all” answer to any of these questions. The nature of the employer, the position of the employee, and all the facts underlying these concerns must be evaluated in assessing the employee’s rights and obligations. The best piece of legal advice for an employee facing any of these predicaments is to raise her concern with the employer and propose one or more thoughtful, common sense solutions. Many employers want to do the right thing and, when they err, welcome a nudge in the proper direction.

Should this dialogue fail to yield the desired result, the employee may need to seek legal counsel. While new laws and regulations born of the novel coronavirus are emerging — and changing — all the time, a broad swath of existing laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, Occupational Health and Safety Act, and National Labors Relations Act can provide some support.

The novel of the coronavirus will look more like an epic saga — think, War and Peace — than a quick beach read. Its readers would be well advised to exercise good common sense in approaching pandemic-related workplace issues. While common sense may not make for a riveting read, it may very well allow for a happy ending.

Nina Pirrotti, New Haven

Nina Pirrotti is a partner at Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti, P.C., a law firm dedicated to advocating for employee and civil rights

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