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What you need to know before returning to work during coronavirus pandemic

As California begins to relax its stay-at-home guidelines, some people are slowly going back to work. So what are their workers' rights during a pandemic?

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The state of California is allowing more businesses to reopen as the curve of coronavirus cases are flattening. ABC10 viewers texted questions of what they need to know before their work managers tell them they can return to work. 

Jennifer Shaw, an expert in employment law, spoke to ABC10 about what kind of personal protective equipment [PPE] people should expect from their employer, and what they should do if they still do not feel comfortable about returning to work.

Q: What type of personal protective equipment and other measures should we expect from our employers?  

Shaw said all employers are required to provide reasonable PPE to their workers, but there is not a one size fits all solution for all industries. For instance, farmworkers would have different PPE than someone who works at a grocery store.  

It is essential to follow up with your employer to ask them what is the plan to keep workers safe during the pandemic, Shaw said.

Q: If I get offered a job that I don't feel safe returning to, will my UI be discontinued?  

Shaw said you could lose your unemployment if your employer did what is expected of them to create a safe environment for workers to return, unless if you have a legitimate reason such your immunity is compromised.

"If it's just this fear of, I would rather stay home in my room and not go to work, I get it," Shaw said.  "But most of the time, it is not going to get you unemployment."

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Q: Would I face repercussions for refusing to go back to work if I am in the high-risk group for severe coronavirus symptoms?

Shaw said you should have job protection if you are in the group who are likely to develop severe coronavirus symptoms.

"If you don't feel safe because you are under treatment for cancer and you're getting chemotherapy, your doctor will write you a note that says you should be quarantined or self-isolating during this time period to protect you," Shaw said.

Q: How should workers who are returning to heir jobs address their concerns to their employer, if they don't feel comfortable in the workplace due to COVID-19? What should they do? 

While employers have to provide reasonable accommodations to keep their workers safe from the disease, employees should think about what reasonable means in the first place, Shaw said.  

"[Employees] should not feel afraid to ask questions and tell their employer, 'Hey, I am not comfortable with that. I want you to do something else,'" Shaw explained. 

Shaw said this is why a company needs to have an open line of communication with the employees.

"Anybody who raises safety issues is protected against retaliation," Shaw said.

Q: What should workers know if a coworker has been sick, but management has said nothing?

Employers have to let their workers know of a positive coronavirus case to those who might have come in contact with the person during the day, Shaw said. 

Shaw said that doesn't mean management needs to let every single person who works within the company know that one of their colleagues tested positive. Employers are entitled to know if their health is at risk, but they are not allowed to know who specifically tested positive for the disease.

However, the company might face penalization from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) if the employer doesn't let anyone know, Shaw said. Shaw recommends contacting Cal/OSHA if this happened at your workplace.

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