COVID-19 and the Law

Frequently Asked Questions and Their Answers From the Attorneys at the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin*

With the HurtLine open 24/7 at 1-866-900-7078, we’re getting more than just questions from people injured in accidents. People are wondering how the COVID-19 orders from the government are going to affect them and what their legal rights are in this time of crisis.

The shelter-in-place order and the closure of non-essential businesses throughout the state have raised a great many questions. Here are the ones we’re hearing most frequently, and some answers from the attorneys here at the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin.

*Disclaimer: We are providing the following general information as a service to the public during the COVID-19 crisis. This is not intended to serve as legal advice specific to your situation.

Social Security COVID-19 FAQs

Can I get Social Security Disability if I get sick with coronavirus and I am unable to work?

Simply being ill with the virus – absent other health problems – will not likely support a case for disability. To qualify for Social Security Disability, you must have a physical or mental impairment that is expected to cause death or last at least 12 months. Without other health issues, most people are recovering from the illness within weeks. This does not meet the durational requirement for So-cial Security Disability. However, if there are other health problems or if the illness causes longer-lasting damage that prevents you from being able to work, then you may qualify for benefits if you meet all of the eligibility requirements.

General COVID-19 FAQs

How do I get my COVID-19 economic impact payment?

Under the recently enacted law, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, many people will be eligible for a payment from the government. The US Treasury Department will be making direct payments to eligible people. For more information, visit https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus-tax-relief-and-economic-impact-payments.

What if I have to close my business in response to the executive order requiring non-essential businesses to close?

Even if your business has to close during the NC statewide stay at home order, you are still able to continue with essential operations to ensure security, continue employee payroll and benefits, or provide support for your employees who are working remotely.

Also, the Small Business Administration is now accepting applications from businesses and indi-viduals affected by the Covid-19 crisis for low interest disaster loans. You can apply online at https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/disaster-assistance or call 1-800-659-2955.

Employment

Can my employer make me use vacation days or sick days if I am too afraid to come to work?

Yes. Your employer can enforce attendance policies and require the use of sick or vacation days if you choose not to go to work.

What if I get laid off because my employer’s business slows down or has to close because of COVID-19?

NC has lifted some of the eligibility requirements for Unemployment Benefits to assist those who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis. If you have lost your job through no fault of your own, you can apply for unemployment benefits online at https://des.nc.gov/apply-unemployment or via phone at 888-737-0259.

Can my employer force me to come to work if I am worried about getting sick?

Yes. North Carolina remains an “employment at will” state and employers have the right to require employees to adhere to the employer’s attendance policy in order to keep their jobs.

Can I get unemployment benefits if my employer cut my hours and/or wages in response to COVID-19?

Yes. If you meet all other eligibility requirements, you can receive unemployment benefits if you are still employed, but have had your hours or wages significantly reduced. To find out if you are eligible, file an application online at https://des.nc.gov/apply-unemployment or via phone at 888-737-0259.

What if my employer doesn’t provide sick days or paid leave?

The recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires certain employers to give their employees paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave if they need to be out of work for reasons attributable to Covid-19. Generally, this requirement applies to employees who work for private businesses with less than 500 employees and some public sector positions. For more specific information, see: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/pandemic.

Eminent Domain

Can the government restrict me from accessing my property on the Outer Banks? Can I be compensated for this?

Dare County, NC is at least one of the counties in NC that is restricting access to the county. This restriction includes non-resident property owners who want to access their properties on the coast. Eminent Domain attorneys at James Scott Farrin have reviewed this issue and concluded that the government can use their “police powers” to protect public health and safety without providing compensation.

Workers' Compensation

If an employer is ordered to close due to the pandemic, what happens with the employees under workers’ compensation – for example people on Temporary Total Disability Benefits (TTD) or working light duty?

If an employee is out of work on TTD benefits, then the closing of the employer due to the pan-demic or any other reason should not impact their continued receipt of TTD benefits. The worker's compensation insurance company would likely need to demonstrate that there is a suitable position with another employer available that meets their prescribed restrictions and other factors. If an em-ployee is working light duty with a worker's compensation claim that the insurance company has agreed is a compensable case, then there may be an argument for TTD benefits to be resumed after the employer closes due to the pandemic. This would depend upon the facts of the particular case, most importantly whether there are prescribed restrictions.

We often see insurance companies being resistant to voluntarily pay TTD benefits once someone has returned to light duty work, even if that light duty work no longer is available.

What if an employer is not ordered to close, and doesn't close, but an employee on light duty decides not to return to avoid exposure? Is it a resignation? A justified termination?

If the employee is working in a light duty position that has been approved by his or her doctor and is within the prescribed restrictions, or is working in a full duty position, then it is unlikely that TTD benefits would be voluntarily paid if the employee decides not to return to work due to the pandemic.

The employer would likely consider refusal to return to work in this situation as a resignation and terminate the employee. If the employee retains legal counsel and is able to demonstrate that the work conditions were unsafe, or outside of their restrictions, and the refusal to return to work was justified, then there may be a viable legal argument that TTD benefits are still owed.

Will I be covered under worker’s compensation if I still have to go to work and I contract the virus?

Most workers will not be covered by existing workers’ compensation laws in North Carolina if they contract COVID-19 at work. Under current law, your employment would have to place you at a greater risk of contracting the disease. OSHA has recently listed industries that may be at a higher risk for exposure.

They have indicated people working in healthcare, deathcare, laboratories, airline operations, bor-der protection, solid waste and wastewater management and travel to areas where the virus is spreading are at a higher rate. Some states are passing laws to protect workers who are at a greater risk of contracting the disease. North Carolina’s legislature has not yet taken any steps to protect first responders or healthcare workers.

Unprecedented Times

This is an unprecedented time for employees and employers with the pandemic situation, and it is important that employees with serious job injuries or other work-related conditions obtain the ad-vice of experienced legal counsel.

As we hear more questions and as the situation evolves, we’ll work to keep this FAQ up to date with the latest information. The information here is current as of: 04-02-2020.