Going to the office during a pandemic comes with a host of unknowns, from whether the person next to you in the elevator has COVID-19 to whether the company has done its due diligence to protect you from infection. So what are your rights as an employee regarding the coronavirus? What are the company’s obligations to keep you safe? Here's a look into the legal side of working during a pandemic and answers to questions you may be asking.
Do employers have to inform employees if a coworker has the coronavirus?
Most employers, including in Turkey and the U.S., are not required to tell employees when someone in the workplace has tested positive for the coronavirus. However, some companies have adopted a policy of doing so to reduce the spread of the virus after an infection becomes known.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Turkish Health Ministry recommend that companies monitor employees for symptoms and alert those who may have been in contact with an infected person.
Businesses are required to provide a safe working environment. They also have to keep track of infections contracted on the job and report any hospitalizations or deaths related to the disease.
Can employers request COVID-19 tests from employees?
In Turkey, employees are legally entitled to request a COVID-19 test from all employees to ensure a safe working environment for all. Companies may opt to do widespread testing after a positive case has been identified in order to isolate infected employees.
Given that an outbreak of the coronavirus could cause serious difficulties for any company and its employees, employers are within their rights to request blanket testing or a health report, lawyer Fatih Kalelioğlu told Turkish daily Hürriyet. The company must cover the cost of mandatory testing, he added.
Employers also have the right to take employees' temperature and ask about symptoms or if they have been exposed to or diagnosed with the virus. If an employee does not respond to those questions, they can be barred from the workplace.
However, employers cannot use a COVID-19 test to determine whether or not to terminate an employee’s contract, lawyer Osman Azak told Hürriyet. Employees who fall ill should obtain a note from their doctor excusing them from work duties, and they are protected under Turkey’s labor laws from dismissal for sickness.
Can catching COVID-19 at the office be considered a work accident?
The determination of whether infection with the coronavirus qualifies as a work accident or not depends on establishing a causal link, lawyer Melih Bahtiyar told Hürriyet. The tricky part about the coronavirus is that an infected person may not show any symptoms until several days after becoming infected, or may not show any symptoms at all. However, if an employee tests positive for COVID-19 and others in the workplace become infected, the cases among other employees who get sick are considered work accidents.
If an employee is sent abroad for work, the company does not adhere to the 14-day quarantine rule upon the employee’s reentry and cases start to be seen in the workplace, this will also be considered a work accident, Bahtiyar said.
However, if an employee becomes infected outside of the workplace in a situation not connected to their job, this case cannot be considered a work accident as there is no causal link.
To avoid having work accidents caused by COVID-19, employers must be diligent in implementing preventative measures in coordination with the workplace doctor and occupational safety specialist.
What if my workplace isn't COVID-safe?
Employers are required by law to create safe working conditions and implement stipulated occupational health and safety measures, including those to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. During the pandemic, the Turkish Health Ministry and the World Health Organization (WHO) have published a series of instructions, recommendations and informational materials for companies to implement in their workplaces. These measures include hygiene, social distancing and training on workplace safety, as well as minimizing domestic and international travel for work and adhering to a 14-day quarantine following international business trips.
In Turkey, if a company fails to enact measures to protect its workers from the coronavirus and does not fulfill its legal obligations, its employees have the right to leave their job immediately until the necessary measures are taken by the employer, Azak said.
"If the employer continues to risk the workers' health, workers may exercise their right of immediate termination for just cause and can leave the workplace, demanding all legal rights, including severance pay,” he said.
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