By Jennifer Vorih, Esq., Ty Hyderally, Esq.
Every New Jersey employee has been affected in some way by the current pandemic. Thousands upon thousands of workers in New Jersey have been laid off; have had to stay home to take care of their children, whose schools are closed; have to adapt to working from home; or are being compelled to work because they work in hospitals, grocery stores, or other essential businesses. Many workers have had to stay home to care for family members who have COVID-19. In addition, there is, thankfully, a growing number of employees who have survived the virus and are ready to return to work.
It is very clear that employees who are diagnosed with COVID-19, should not go to work. If you are one of these employees, or if you have symptoms of COVID-19, you can look to https://www.state.nj.us/csc/Coronavirus%20FAQs.FINAL.pdf for directives from the State of New Jersey. In addition to staying home, employees who have the virus should notify their Human Resources office and provide medical documentation to their employer within three business days of receiving their positive test result. After that, they should not return to work until they are medically cleared to do so.
Given all that we do not know about COVID-19, except that it spreads like wildfire, it is understandable for the State of New Jersey and employers to allow essential employees to return to the workplace only if they have a note from their doctors, certifying that they have recovered and that it is safe for them to return to the workplace. No employer wants to allow an employee back to work at the risk of endangering their other employees, their customers, or their patients. Of course, employers want employees who have survived COVID-19 to prove that they are safe by providing a note from a doctor. Unfortunately, such doctor notes can be very hard to come by. Many doctors in New Jersey and elsewhere who are not well-versed in the intricacies of the novel Coronavirus are reaching out to their local or county health departments to confirm that such recovered employees returning to work will not put other workers at risk. But those health departments are unable to do so, because it is only appropriate for such a letter to come from the employee/patient’s own health care provider. In addition, the guidance on when a person who has recovered COVID-19 can come out of quarantine is ever-changing. Current information from the CDC can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/disposition-in-home-patients.html.
COVID-19 has hit our poorest communities the hardest due to many factors, including underlying health conditions and lack of access to healthcare. Of course, many of the essential workers, such as grocery workers and lower-level hospital employees, make very little money and thus may have inadequate access to healthcare. This pandemic, and the requirement for COVID-19-positive workers to provide their employers with proof that they are medically cleared to return to work, hits poor workers with a double or triple whammy: they may be more likely to contract the disease because they are in the workplace and exposed to many people, they are not paid enough to have a regular healthcare provider, and yet they must provide medical clearance from a healthcare provider in order to return to work.
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