ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Monday, September 14, 2020

Virtual Symposium Part V: Rachel Arnow-Richman on Employee Rights, Part I

Individual Employee Rights and COVID-19
Part I: The Basics
Rachel Arnow-Richman


For those fond of mining current events for exam questions, the present moment makes a fitting hypothetical. Consider:

An employee declines to come to work for fear of serious or deadly illness. The employer has attempted to mitigate the risk, but cannot ensure the employee’s safety.  The employee asks to perform her job from home, but the employer refuses. What are the parties’ rights and obligations?

Or, to make it acutely personal: If we refuse to teach in person out of a justifiable fear for our health, could we lose our jobs?

Like all COVID-related legal matters (and all law school exam questions), there are no definitive answers only arguments on each side. Unfortunately for most employees, those arguments largely favor the employer. Tenured professors, we will see, are a rare exception. 

I. Default rules and public law considerations

A. It all begins with employment at will

Rachel A-ROrdinary employees are hired at will. They can be terminated for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason, as the saying goes. Firing someone for not coming to work would seem like a good reason if one were needed.  The employee has a good reason for not showing up too, but sadly that is worth little:  a contract requires the assent of both parties, and in the workplace, the employer is usually the party who dictates the terms. The employee’s bargaining power, such as it is, lies in her ability to walk away from the deal.  It is true that current working conditions are wildly different from how they were at the start of employment. This distinguishes the current situation from one in which an employee knowingly takes an inherently risky job (such as an infectious disease physician who will be exposed to biohazards). But no matter. In courts’ absurdly formalistic conception, each moment of an at-will employment relationship is treated as a “new” contract. The employer is free to terminate the employee and insist on her acceptance of the new normal in exchange for reemployment. In other words, whatever the agreement was before COVID as to safety, location, work format, and all other conditions of the job, the offer now on the table is for work amidst a global pandemic.

 B. The search for an exception

That is the contractual baseline. There are various public law “hooks” that can protect the employee in specific circumstances, even allowing an employee who wishes to stay at home some job-protected paid leave. These include Congress’s temporary expansion of the Family/Medical Leave Act (FMLA); the Occupational Health & Safety Act (OSHA), which protects workers who report dangerous working conditions; and state public policy and whistleblower laws that protect workers who refuse to engage in unlawful behavior at work or object to conduct that creates a public safety risk.

Yet none of these quite do the trick for the employee who wants to work from home. OSHA and other whistleblower-type protections make it illegal for an employer to terminate or otherwise retaliate against a worker for objecting to or reporting unsafe conditions or wrongful behavior. They do not protect a refusal to come to work even if for the same reasons. Congress’ pandemic-related legislation comes closer. Qualifying workers can take partially paid, job-protected leave for a maximum of 12 weeks (just a few weeks shy of a typical law school semester). But these apply only to small employers with fewer than 500 employees, which excludes most universities.  Plus, the employee must have a qualifying COVID-related reason for leave, such as the need to quarantine due to exposure, not a general fear of contracting the virus. 

COVIDIn any event, leave from work is not the same as working from home. Employees wishing to perform their job remotely are effectively requesting an accommodation, much like what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees disabled workers. Indeed, some employees might qualify for ADA protection, such as those who have immune disorders or other conditions that would make contracting COVID especially grave.  But employees who are at risk due merely to age are not disabled, nor are accommodations available to employees living with or caring for a family-member who is disabled. Finally, ADA-qualifying employees are entitled to an accommodation, not necessarily the one they want.  A court could find that an employer’s implementation of social distancing and sanitization protocols are a reasonable, and consequently sufficient, accommodation for the employee’s disability.

II. Contract-Based Job Security Rights 

The questions, and in some cases the results, are different when the employee has some form of contractual job security. Teachers, for instance, regardless of tenure, usually are hired under a written contract for one academic year; top executives, multiple years from the date of hire.  Other employees have implied contract rights to job security, meaning that the court treats the relationship as one that can be terminated only for just cause based on the reasonable expectations of the parties despite the absence of a formal agreement.  Assuming the parties’ contract does not contain any express terms regarding the employee’s ability to work from home, their rights depend on whether a refusal to work in person constitutes cause for termination. If not, firing the employee is a breach of contract.

A. What is cause to terminate?

With a written contract, the “cause” question is often answered by express language. Some contracts simply state that the employee may be terminated upon just cause, but others contain a definition delineating the precise and exclusive grounds for termination. Failure to show up at work, or what the employer might describe as excessive absenteeism, would seem on its face to be “just cause,” at least in the usual course of things (more on COVID in a moment).  But where the contract contains what I refer to as an “enumerated just cause provision,” ordinary cause to terminate usually will not suffice. 

For instance, high-level executives often have contracts that define cause to include narrow performance-related grounds such as “incompetence,” “misconduct,” “failure to perform,” or “material breach,” none of which is quite on point for the remote work scenario. The employee is not incompetent (one might say that insistence on working from home demonstrates the opposite). If she is keeping up with work –  completing tasks at home, meeting deadlines, interacting with colleagues virtually – then she is not failing to perform, which consequently means she is not in material breach. There is an argument for misconduct: the employer might say it ordered the employee to return to the office and she refused, an act of insubordination.  But “misconduct” in this context is generally understood to mean intentionally wrongful behavior or violations of policy:  misusing corporate assets, stealing trade secrets, or, of recent note, engaging in sexual harassment. An employer that relies on such language to terminate a worker who is still performing, albeit from home, is on shaky legal ground.

In contrast, employees with implied just-cause contracts or written agreements that do not define the term have less job security.  The common law meaning of “cause” in such cases is any reasonable, good faith basis for terminating. Certainly, the employee can argue forcefully that cause is lacking:  She is willing and able to perform and her reasons for avoiding the workplace are sound.  But the suitability of working from home is a classic area of managerial discretion, and the legal standard, particularly in implied contract cases, is highly deferential to employers.  Unless the employee is able to establish that the parties intended “just cause” to have a specialized meaning, neither the soundness – nor, in some jurisdictions, the accuracy – of the employer’s judgment is subject to review. Should the question prove a close one, the burden of proof lies with the employee to demonstrate breach of contract.

B. Wait…which breach came first?

But why begin with cause?  As a practical matter it is always termination that triggers a lawsuit, but other aspects of the employer’s behavior bear scrutiny.  How can the employer demand that the employee work under conditions that compromise her health? Might not the employer’s failure to provide a safe work environment itself constitute a breach of contract? If so, that could mean that the employee is within her rights to withhold performance altogether, stay at home, and sue for damages. 

The answer turns on whether the employer has any contractual duties with regard to safety and whether it has materially breached. The parties’ contract is presumably silent as to COVID, as it is on so many terms of the relationship.  Employment agreements, even written ones, are notoriously incomplete.  In some unionized workplaces, however, the collective bargaining agreement requires that employers provide a safe work environment. It would not be hard to imply a similar obligation in an individual employment contract based on OSHA’s general duty clause or grounded in the implied duty of good faith.

The question then becomes what constitutes a breach of that obligation, one that is material in the context of the whole agreement. Clearly there is no way to fully eliminate the risk of contracting COVID for employees who physically interact with large groups of people, like teachers in the classroom.  The employer that fails to take basic steps (like instituting social distancing and requiring masks) or that flagrantly fails to enforce their rules might be in material breach. But an employer that adopts measures consistent with existing medical protocols, limited though they may be, probably is not. This is especially so if the employee is not being deprived of the “principal benefit” of the contract – namely, her salary.

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Reader, you have waited patiently for an assessment of your personal employment rights. But the customary law of the blogosphere forbids posts in excess of 1500 words. Please see Part II of this symposium contribution.

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