HOUSTON – Many people are preoccupied with work at the moment. If they will be paid, when they will be and some worry even if they still have to show up for work every day.
We’ve taken your questions and concerns to Employment Advocate Rogge Dunn of the Rogge Dunn Band in Dallas.
Q: I was not laid off, but my hours were reduced. Can I still get unemployment to help me pay my bills?
Dunn’s response: Let them call him fired, fired, fired, I would apply for unemployment benefits. As the great Wayne Gretsky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The worst that can happen if you are furloughed and apply is that they say you are not eligible.
Q: I work in retail where I interact closely with customers and colleagues all day. My employee told me that I was not allowed to wear a mask or gloves because it scared the customers. Can business owners legally do this?
Dunn’s response: Yes, unfortunately they can. One of my clients called me about this. We watched it. An employer may tell you not to wear a mask unless you have a disability. Say you have a facial deformity or a problem with your face, you can wear a mask. An employer should allow a mask in this case, but only if it was necessary due to a disability.
Q: My employer forces me to come to work, even though I don’t think it’s safe. I worry about my own health and that of my loved ones with weakened immune systems. What can I do?
Dunn’s response: Lawmakers just passed two new acts which will allow employees to get paid time off due to coronavirus issues and concerns.
The Employment Paid Sick Leave Act requires employers to pay employees for 10 days off (two work weeks) when they cannot work due to the coronavirus.
The Family Emergency Medical Leave Act gives employees 50 days of paid leave (after taking 10 days of unpaid leave) due to coronavirus concerns.
Both acts come into force on April 2. Dunn and others are still studying the deeds, but he thinks they can be stacked to a total of 60 days of paid leave with a letter or a call to human resources.
The deeds are drafted loosely enough to allow employees to take advantage of them in the following circumstances:
The employee is quarantined and/or has symptoms of COVID-19 and requests a medical diagnosis.
An employee unable to work due to a need to care for someone under quarantine, care for a child whose school is closed, or a child care provider not available for reasons related to COVID-19
The employee experiencing conditions substantially similar to those specified by the US Department of Health and Human Services may receive two weeks (up to 80 hours) of sick leave paid at 2/3 of the employee’s salary.
Under these new laws, your employer cannot retaliate by firing or demoting you for taking the leave. Employers with less than 500 employees will benefit from a tax credit for paying employees who take paid leave.
Q: My employer has given me documents to sign that look like I agree not to file for unemployment. Is it legal?
Dunn’s response: Generally speaking, you can’t release your unemployment or workers’ compensation rights, so my gut feeling is that these releases aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
Yet employees may fear being fired if they do not sign the documents. Dunn says you should put some questions in writing. You can email Human Resources and your manager. Be polite and not contradictory. You might write, “I have questions about this document you want me to sign. It seems to say that I will agree not to file for unemployment if I am laid off. Is it correct ? or “You asked me to sign this.” I don’t think it’s appropriate to sign.
Dunn said it will help you put everything in writing if you’re fired for not signing. You will have this email as proof that you inquired and it will show that the employer was trying to violate the law by not allowing employees to file for unemployment. You would have a retaliatory claim if they fired you after sending that email.
Q: When I told my employer that I couldn’t work because I’m caring for my spouse who is at risk, he gave me a document to sign that appears to change my salary from salary to hourly. There is no effective date on paper. Should I sign it?
Dunn’s response: Ask your employer in writing: “When is it effective?” Why is this done?’ Get answers and document them.
It is very important that if someone asks you to sign something, everything they told you before you signed it is in that document and it is crystal clear what it means and why it is being done. My grandfather used to say that if it wasn’t written down, it didn’t happen. Unfortunately, in a courtroom, memories fade, time flies, maybe some people have convenient memories.
Q: My employer has a small business. It’s not his fault we can’t work now. I need unemployment to pay my bills, but I don’t want him to have to pay for it. Will companies be stuck with all these claims?
Dunn’s response: One of the things I’ve seen happen is the Texas Legislature saying we’re not going to charge employers because of the covid pandemic. This is something that remains to be seen. Hopefully the government will step in because it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure these employers do the right thing.
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