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Healthcare workers' rights in question as coronavirus pandemic pushes hospitals, staff to unheard limits

Posted at 9:22 AM, Apr 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-16 14:20:23-04

CLEVELAND — Healthcare workers across Ohio are raising new questions concerning their legal rights as the coronavirus pushes hospitals and staff to unimaginable limits. At the same time they perform heroic tasks by doing whatever is asked, concerns are being privately expressed about whether hospitals are pushing too far and whether lives are being placed at risk.

Matt Besser is a Cleveland employment rights attorney who says he has received calls from across the spectrum including nurses, doctors and even hospital upper management.

"We're getting a lot of calls from pregnant employees, employees with existing health conditions and these two categories of folks are obviously extra vulnerable to exposure," said Besser.

Hospitals historically have occupational and injury rates twice the national average, and now there is a pandemic that is pushing staff to unheard of limits.

"If an employee works in a high risk job with a high risk of exposure and they are not getting personal protective equipment, they might have the right to refuse to perform certain tasks," said Besser.

But Besser warns that circumstances vary and so do legal protections.

"If you work in patient transport where you've got to get face-to-face with patients, and they're not even giving you a face mask or something to shield you, you've got decent argument that you have a right to refuse to work," Besser said.

But in terms of involuntary moves, where hospitals may resort to reassigning staff to higher risk areas, the circumstances vary.

"By and large, an employer is gong to have a fair amount of leeway," Besser said.

Even so, pregnant employees or those with disabilities may have other legal protections. But federal workplace safety laws, like those under OSHA, have only limited protection for those who refuse to work, and even then, only with imminent danger of death or serious injury.

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Reopening Ohio
Gov. Mike DeWine and the State of Ohio have established a plan to begin reopening Ohio businesses starting May 1. Below is a timeline of the businesses allowed to reopen.

May 1: Medical care – non-essential surgeries and procedures that do not require an overnight stay will be allowed beginning May 1.
May 4: Manufacturing, distribution and construction businesses that were ordered to cease activities may reopen on May 4, as well as general office environments.
May 12: Retail establishments and facilities will be allowed to reopen on May 12.
May 15: Salons, barbershops, day spas, tanning facilities, massage parlors, tattoo parlors and piercing businesses. Restaurants will be allowed to serve patrons on outdoor patios. More details here.
May 21: Restaurants and bars will be allowed to reopen for dine-in service. Read more here. Campgrounds will be allowed to reopen. Read more here.
May 22: Horse racing will be allowed to resume, with no spectators. Casinos and Racinos are not included in the reopening. Read more here.
May 26: Gyms, fitness centers, regulated pools, recreation centers and studios will be allowed to reopen, with new requirements. Non-contact and limited-contact sports leagues, such as golf, baseball and tennis will be allowed to resume. BMVs across Ohio will reopen, but government officials encourage citizens to utilize the BMVs online services when possible. Read more here.
May 31: Day care centers will be able to reopen in Ohio. Read more about the plan to reopen day cares here. Day camps and summer camps will also be allowed to operate. Details on that here.

While these announced reopenings encompass the majority of the businesses, agencies and events closed and canceled by the state's orders, the governor has not yet made an annoucements on when K-12 schools in the state will reopen, nor when places of public amusement, such as theme parks, gambling businesses, skating rinks, movie theaters, and others will be allowed to reopen. See a full list of indoor and outdoor places that remain closed here.

Click here for more details on the state's "Responsible RestartOhio" plan.