Lawsuit Examines Employee Rights During COVID-19 Pandemic

By | 2021-07-13T12:20:44-04:00 July 14th, 2021|0 Comments

COVID-19 changed everyone’s lives in some way. It has also influenced changes and additions to state and federal laws regarding employee rights during the pandemic.

For instance, in March 2020, Congress passed the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFMLEA) and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA).

These were set forth as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in order to give workers the chance to obtain paid leave under different circumstances. The act expired on December 31, 2020.

The FFCRA’s impact on one employee who contracted COVID-19 while working as an LPN is illustrated in the case, Gomes v. Steere House.

Details of the Case

The LPN worked at a nursing and rehabilitation center from August 13, 2018, until May 2020. During the months of April and May 2020, she was exposed to and contracted COVID-19. She was unable to work “for a period of time.”

After contracting the virus, the LPN pursued paid leave from the center under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). She was terminated from her position on May 22, 2020.

The LPN filed a lawsuit against her employer alleging the center retaliated against her by terminating her employment after she became ill and requested paid leave.

The center filed a Motion to Dismiss her case because it alleged she was not entitled to paid leave under the FMLA or the newly passed EFMLEA. The new amendment only required paid leave for those employees who needed to care for children who became sick due to COVID-19.

The Court’s Interpretation of the Laws

The court noted under the Department of Labor regulations that implement the FMLA, an employee who is involuntarily terminated has the right to sue for retaliation when terminated for invoking employee rights under the act.

It further stated that if a former employee can show that a termination was the result of a request for leave, the former employee has pled enough facts to defeat a Motion to Dismiss.

The court then analyzed whether these requirements were met in this case.

The court noted that the LPN’s request for FMLA benefits was asserted under rules passed by the legislation that amended the FMLA. However, the court pointed out that the modification does not provide paid leave for workers who contract COVID-19.

Rather, that amendment requires paid leave for employees whose children require care at home due to school closings or unavailable caretakers “for reasons related to COVID-19” or whose children have the virus themselves.

It does not, the court clarified, provide paid leave for one’s own COVID-19 illness. As a result, the LPN was not qualified for FMLA leave under its amendment.

Even so, the court opined that the LPN “availed” herself of FMLA rights by requesting a paid leave. Moreover, her termination closely followed the request for such leave.

The court held that the LPN sufficiently stated facts to support a claim for retaliation, despite the fact that she did not request the paid leave under the new Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA) that provides for such a leave for one’s own COVID-19 illness.

The court noted that the law has long supported protecting employees from retaliation by employers even when an employee bases a right on the wrong law or is in error about a law’s specifications.

The center’s Motion to Dismiss was denied.

Details You Should Consider

The LPN’s victory of continuing her suit brings up an important for you to remember: Retaliation against an employee when exercising employee rights granted by state or federal legislation is unjust and unfair.

This is particularly so when an employee erroneously relies on a law but believes it applies in his or her situation.

Moreover, as in this case, termination of employment when it follows closely after an employee request for an employee benefit or benefits, arguably supports the intent of the employer to strike back at, and get even with, the employee for the request.

The LPN had a good work record and was reliable. You might ask, as the court considered, why did termination occur when it did?

The LPN will need to prove her employer’s intent as her case progresses through the trial process. Yet, these developments are ones that you should keep in mind if you find yourself in a similar situation.

Despite this victory, one fact that the case illustrates is the need for you to consult with an attorney or a nurse attorney before deciding to request an employee benefit.

The application of any employee benefits, including requesting a leave from work, are often complex and depend on the existence or absence of certain conditions. Thus, it is always best to get advice on how to proceed before making a request.

Since the FFCRA and its two components expired on December 31, 2020, it is no longer law.

Employers are no longer required to provide the leaves granted while the laws were in effect. Some employers are doing so voluntarily, however.

More cases on COVID-19’s impact on your employment and benefits are most certainly to occur. Allegations may include an improper denial of a requested leave and, as with this LPN, retaliation claims.

One area ripe for litigation regarding employee rights is whether contracting COVID-19 at work is covered under Worker Compensation Laws.

Other legal authors identify additional potential employee-related complaints.

Seeking legal counsel is therefore particularly significant if COVID-19 has resulted in an employment issue for you.

If you fail to seek legal counsel before making a request for employee benefits, the need to obtain legal representation from a competent and experienced attorney who represents employees and concentrates his or her law practice on employment law is essential.


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About the Author:

Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN
Our legal information columnist Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN, received her Juris Doctor from Loyola University Chicago School of Law and concentrates her solo law practice in health law and legal representation, consultation and education for healthcare professionals, school of nursing faculty and healthcare delivery facilities. Brent has conducted many seminars on legal issues in nursing and healthcare delivery across the country and has published extensively in the area of law and nursing practice. She brings more than 30 years of experience to her role of legal information columnist. Her posts are designed for educational purposes only and are not to be taken as specific legal or other advice. Individuals who need advice on a specific incident or work situation should contact a nurse attorney or attorney in their state. Visit The American Association of Nurse Attorneys website to search its attorney referral database by state.

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