Among the many concerns employers face while operating or reopening during the coronavirus pandemic is increased liability and risk of lawsuits.
But with Congress yet to enact COVID-19 liability relief, virus-related lawsuits against employers are piling up in state and federal courts, according to Fisher Phillips, a nationwide law firm that represents management in labor and employment matters.
The firm's COVID-19 employment litigation tracker shows a steady increase in virus related lawsuits filed against U.S. employers over the past three months.
A total of 283 COVID-19 related suits were filed against employers through June 30—with 122, or 43%, filed in June.
In April, 60 COVID lawsuits were filed against employers nationwide, followed by 94 cases in May.
The June filings demonstrate "an exponential increase in the number of claims involving disputes between workers and employers," Fisher Phillips said.
Connecticut had four lawsuits filed against employers through June 30, according to the tracker.
California had the most with 47, followed by Florida (32), New Jersey (31), New York (21), and Texas (19).
The two most common types of suits are employment discrimination claims and claims involving requests to work from home or take family leave, the firm said.
There were 63 discrimination claims followed closely by 62 work-from-home/leave claims.
Fisher Phillips described many of the discrimination claims as "classic workplace disputes wrapped in a COVID-19 context."
- A gender discrimination claim where a pregnant woman alleges she was furloughed due to the pandemic then replaced by a non-pregnant person
- A disability discrimination claim where an employee was forced to divulge a multiple sclerosis diagnosis to justify accommodation requests and was later fired
- A sexual harassment claim where the employee said the employer used the pandemic to end her employment but the real reason was she refused her boss' sexual advances
- A worker who was sent home with flu-like symptoms and fired after presenting a negative COVID-19 test result
The work from home/leave claims generally involve a worker being denied leave despite having a legitimate reason under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, or not being allowed to work from home.
Among the reasons workers cited are their own or a family member's vulnerable medical condition, a possible exposure to the virus and need to quarantine, or childcare/family issues.
Other top claims allege retaliation (41 lawsuits), unsafe working conditions/lack of personal protective equipment (26), and wage and hour issues (20).
"This data is a stark reminder for employers that typical best practices cannot be ignored simply because we are operating in unprecedented times," Fisher Phillips said.
"You need to continue to train your managers so they have a solid understanding of their responsibilities and employee rights."
Managers should coordinate with HR and legal advisors as needed when it comes to key personnel decisions such as discipline and terminations, the firm advises.
"Documentation and consistent treatment of workers remain of paramount importance."
Class Action Suits
The 283 lawsuits against employers include 41 class action suits, with 16 filed in June—including six in the last week of June.
The two most common class actions involve claims of unsafe working conditions (eight) and wage and hour complaints (seven).
"If you haven't yet developed and communicated a comprehensive safety plan as your employees return to the workplace, you should make this a priority," the firm said.
"The same holds true when it comes to your compensation obligations—you need to ensure that your organization understands all of the varying wage and hour responsibilities that might come into play during turbulent times."