Nicole Page and Elizabeth Stork Discuss Educators’ Legal Rights for the School Year Amid Ongoing COVID-19 Concerns
Back to school season is here, but this year, teachers and other school staff are facing many challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With no established plan in place for New York State, many schools are making decisions on a district-by-district basis, which has led many teachers and school staff to feel uncomfortable and unsafe about returning to the classroom.
On August 18, the New York Daily News published an article on the topic written by RPJ attorneys Nicole Page and Elizabeth Stork, entitled “What are educators’ legal rights if they go back to work during the coronavirus pandemic?” They discuss the legal measures teachers and other school employees can take in advance to make the return to school less worrisome as well as those they can take if they contract the virus on the job. Some of the measures include:
Whether COVID-19 can be considered a workplace injury depends on each state’s laws. In New York specifically, COVID-19 can be considered a workplace injury due to the fact that there is some precedent for compensation where teachers contracted mumps during an epidemic in 1961.
Other states, like California, have put in place legal presumptions that if an employee tests positive after being in the workplace during a stay-at-home order, they contracted COVID-19 at work and are therefore eligible for workers’ comp.
Injury in the Line of Duty Protections
New York public school teachers are not covered by New York’s workers’ compensation law. However, if these teachers are members of the United Federation of Teachers, they are covered by the “injury in the line of duty” provisions in their union contracts. This covers reimbursement of medical expenses as well as paid time off for recovery.
Paid and Unpaid Leave Laws
School staff may qualify for leave for illness or childcare under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) as well as New York’s law allowing for paid family leave for COVID-19.
High-risk teachers and school staff can request accommodations based on certain medical conditions. New York City’s Human Rights Law allows pregnant individuals to seek accommodation as well. Additionally, employers have the opportunity to provide flexibility to staff who are at higher risk for COVID-19 due to their age.
Although not all public employees may be covered, teachers concerned about school safety can contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which can investigate complaints and issue citations.
Teachers are able to sue school districts based on gross negligence or willfulness. Employers can be sued for failing to implement social distancing or provide PPE and for disclosing to employees the identifying information of colleagues who have been infected with COVID-19.
As Page and Stork note in the article, “In these unprecedented times, teachers and staff should know their rights before going back to school. They have always been essentials, and now their health and safety are more essential than ever to the country’s recovery.”
Read more details about the provisions in the full article on New York Daily News here.