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  • Tom Oxford

Questions abound:

: "Do I have to wear a mask at work"

"Shouldn't my employer require a mask; co-workers are putting my health at risk"

"Can my employer require a vaccine"

"What happens when I miss work because of COVID"

The answers are not always that clear. To avoid too much confusion, we will stick with the rights of Texas based employees.

Texas employers enjoy the benefits of the "at will" employment doctrine. In simple terms that means they can fire you for any reason. They do not need a reason to fire you, they can just fire you because they were in the mood to terminate someone that day. Thus, the short answer is an employer can require you to wear a mask and they can require you to be vaccinated. If you choose not to comply, they can fire you. Remember, they do not need a reason to fire you so the fact they have a justification that seems unfair is irrelevant.

There are some exceptions to the "at will" doctrine. There are the obvious Federal protections for discrimination based on age, race, disability and religion. If you have a handicapping condition that prevents the use of a mask or vaccination you will have some ammunition to fight either of these requirements. Likewise for a legitimate religious objection. But be careful, there are exceptions to the exceptions. Consult with a lawyer if you feel one of these protections applies to you.

The same basic approach applies to a requirement that you work around fellow employees who are not taking common sense health protections that are putting your health at risk. Refusing to work with someone who is putting your health at risk may put your job at risk. However, employers do have an obligation to provide a safe workplace. There have been some legislative attempts to protect employers from liability COVID caught in the workplace. This is an evolving area of the law; the final answers will be the subject of future litigation.

So, what happens when you do catch COVID? You need to quarantine for at least two weeks. Can your employer fire you? See the discussion of the "at will" employment doctrine above. Texas law provides an employee little to no help in this area. Fortunately, if you have worked at your job for at least a year, you may have protection under the Family and Medical Leave Act. For those protected under that act an employer must provide you up to ninety days of leave (unpaid) for a serious health emergency. COVID would certainly qualify. Again, not everyone qualifies, they are several technical requirements. Talk to a lawyer if you are facing this issue.

It is a complicated road. Employees in Texas usually work only by the grace of their employer. But there are some limited protections. Always talk with a professional when facing a difficult legal issue.

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