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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