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Geaney: Consequences for Failure to Use Protective Devices Under COVID-19 Policies

By John H. Geaney

Tuesday, May 5, 2020 | 264 | 0 | min read

I had a recent discussion in relation to an upcoming COVID-19 webinar with former Supervising Judge of Compensation Ray. A. Farrington, who sat in Hackensack. Farrington raised an important question about what employers can do when employees ignore safety rules concerning COVID-19 in respect to both workers’ compensation and employment law.

John H. Geaney

John H. Geaney

Suppose an employer has a strict requirement that an employee must wear a mask at work to protect the employee and others. Suppose further that one employee repeatedly ignores the rule and eventually becomes sick with coronavirus and then brings a workers’ compensation claim. Is there a valid defense to the claim based on the employee’s willful failure to wear his mask?

The answer is yes, if the employer complied with the terms of N.J.S.A. 34:15-7. That provision states that the willful failure to make use of a reasonable and proper personal protective device furnished by the employer is grounds for denial of the workers’ compensation claim if the employer has clearly made this a requirement of the employment and has uniformly enforced this rule.

For this defense to work, the employer has to properly document that despite repeated warnings, the employee willfully failed to properly and effectively utilize the protective device, and that conduct led to the work illness — in this case, the virus.

A second question in this scenario is whether the employer can terminate someone who fails to utilize required protective devices. As Farrington posed the question: “Can the employer have a zero-tolerance policy?” For the answer we turn to Ralph Smith, co-chair of Capehart’s labor law department.

Smith responded, “If you are a non-union employer, firing under a zero-tolerance policy for a lack of mask use would no doubt be allowed because failing to follow such a directive would be insubordination, and insubordination is subject to discipline, including possible discharge.” 

He added, “Progressive discipline would be unnecessary unless the employer has a policy where progression is required, though most employers carve out from progressive discipline serious workplace infractions.”

Smith added that given the risks of COVID-19, not wearing a mask could have serious health consequences for others and should be considered a serious infraction.

The answer is more nuanced if the employer is in a unionized setting. Smith explained, “I would think that discipline would be an issue which would have to be addressed with the union, it being considered a term and condition of employment, but if you already have a CBA (collective bargaining agreement) with a progressive discipline policy, you would need to follow that and likely would not be able to go directly to termination.”

Smith suggested that in a union setting it would be wise to discuss the employer’s plans involving mask usage with the union. He added, “Unions have the same safety incentive as employers do, so I suspect the employer would not get very much pushback on requiring mask usage and disciplining for non-use, short of termination for a first violation.”

Finally, Smith made an important point about reasonable accommodations.

“In both union and non-union contexts, an employer might have to accommodate someone who refuses to wear a mask, or is unable to do so, because of health reasons. This is an exception even under Governor Murphy’s executive orders.”

He added that the employer may need to address whatever the underlying disability is that precludes mask use just as the employer would for any disability. The question becomes whether the employer can make adjustments that accommodate the health problem and still maintain a safe working environment.

Thanks to Farrington and Smith for their contributions to this blog.

John H. Geaney is an attorney, executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, a defense law firm in New Jersey. This post appears with permission from Geaney's New Jersey Workers' Comp Blog.

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