Workplace Case: Covid-19 Lawsuits Spiking in U.S.Yi Jin, Ph.D.
The United States is one of the most litigious countries in the world – a close fifth behind global leader Germany – and the number of lawsuits filed in America has risen sharply in 2020. This rise in litigation can be directly attributed to the conditions brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to hit hard in all areas of the U.S. nine months after the country’s first case was diagnosed in the state of Washington. The well-documented failure of the U.S. to contain the outbreak in comparison to other countries violently muzzled what was a roaring American economy and shuttered hundreds of thousands of American workplaces that had built and drive a years-long economic boom.
As summer turns to autumn, COVID-19 containment and mitigation efforts have improved in the U.S., which has allowed for limited reopening of non-essential businesses across the country in hopes of jump-starting its sluggish economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported in July that 86% of small businesses surveyed were either fully (52%) or partially (34%) open, up seven points from 79% in May. Despite this promising trend, customers and employees alike wary of patronizing businesses and workplaces that have decided to open up, even if they are strictly following the COVID-19 safety procedures mandated by their state and local health officials.
In conjunction, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has expressed concerns about a second coronavirus outbreak striking the U.S. this coming winter. Given widespread negative public sentiment of how government leadership handled the first outbreak, Americans’ faith in the ability of national, state, and local governments to respond effectively to protect citizens during another rise in cases remains firmly in question. Survey data shows that two-thirds of small businesses (65%) remain concerned about having to close again or stay closed if there is a second wave of COVID-19; the concern is particularly high among small businesses that already had to temporarily close (85%), those in the South (72%), and those in the service industry (72%).
WORK LAWSUITS SPIKE AS SUMMER HITS
According to a recent study conducted prior to the pandemic, 55% of U.S businesses had five or more lawsuits filed against their companies in the previous 12 months, more than doubles that of companies in the U.K. (23%) and Australia (22%) — two countries with highly similar western cultures and economic policies. In the midst of unprecedented upheaval brought about by COVID-19, U.S. business owners and commercial operators who decide to relaunch must assure that they create and maintain safe workplace environments that allow them to sustain day-to-day operations and avoid closure. More importantly, they must understand the potential consequences for subjecting customers and employees to COVID-19 health risks, and then protect their assets and interests from undue retribution – warranted or not – from individuals claiming to be compromised by such risk exposure.
“U.S. business owners and commercial operators who decide to relaunch must assure that they create and maintain safe workplace environments.”
Several recent examples highlight what businesses might expect in the post-COVID economy when it comes to litigation:
- On August 20, a New York labor union representing delivery drivers and helpers in the liquor and wine industry filed a lawsuit against a wine and liquor distributor alleging improper and unequal application of health and safety regimens in the distributor’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among union and non-union rank-and-file employees.
- On August 13, a registered nurse at a Texas rehabilitation center filed a lawsuit against her employer claiming she unknowingly was exposed to a new patient who had COVID-19, and that her employer’s admissions coordinator had failed to test the new patient in violation of the employer’s policies. The lawsuit also alleges that the nurse’s employer failed to test residents for COVID-19 prior to admission or to develop, implement or enforce proper policies and procedures; failed to hire and properly train staff on how to prevent or minimize the spread of COVID-19; and failed to comply with OSHA and other public health and safety standards. The plaintiff, who seeks damages in excess of $1,000,000 USD, claims she was hospitalized in ICU for three weeks and ventilated, and despite months of rehabilitation she has sustained permanent injuries and is lucky to be alive.
- On June 11, a representative of a deceased power rail mechanic for a New Jersey rail carrier filed a wrongful death lawsuit. The plaintiff claims that the deceased, who was not wearing a mask at work because his employer “instructed its workers at safety meetings not to wear masks at work unless they were performing their specific job functions.” was exposed to COVID-19 when he embraced a co-worker who later tested positive for COVID-19. The complaint alleges that the decedent was hospitalized and over the next 20 days experienced a “horrible and protracted death.” The plaintiff alleges that the employer was negligent by failing to provide employees with a safe place to work, failing to timely provide PPE to employees, failing to test employees for COVID-19, and failing to warn employees of the dangers of contracting COVID-19 at work.
Of the 283 U.S. COVID-19 workplace claims being tracked by law firm Fisher Phillips, 122 of them (43%) were filed in June, which the firm said constituted an “exponential” rise in case filings. The pandemic has generated 41 separate class-action lawsuits across the country, some related to wage-and-hour violations but most related to unsafe working conditions. According to Fisher Phillips, the states seeing the most ligitagion action are the same states that have traditionally seen the most employment-related lawsuits — California (47), Florida (32), New Jersey (31), New York (21), and Texas (19). In its press release, Fisher Phillips has sounded the alarm bell to America’s business owners: “This data is a stark reminder for employers that typical best practices cannot be ignored simply because we are operating in unprecedented times.”
“Best practices cannot be ignored simply because we are operating in unprecedented times.”
SAFETY PLANS KEY FOR RISK REDUCTION
In response to this new normal of high-profile employers and small businesses alike being taken to court over COVID-19 claims, Fisher Phillips suggests employers take several important steps to avoid receiving such claims:
- Train managers and HR personnel to understand their responsibilities and employee rights.
- Anticipate the various wage and hour responsibilities and staffing challenges that might come into play as the pandemic unfolds.
- Develop and communicate a comprehensive safety plan for employees to follow as they return to the office.
A key element of creating a viable safety plan is to outfit a workplace with proper safety equipment. With the first and foremost symptom of possible COVID-19 being fever, the process of conducting temperature checks at employment entrances is fast becoming the most important line of defense in preventing infected subjects from entering the workplace. The Turing Body Temperature Thermal Scanner is the preeminent market solution for this task, utilizing the combination of advanced thermal sensor and facial recognition AI technologies to provide highly accurate non-contact subject temperature results. The scanner is part of Turing’s comprehensive Covid-19 Response Solution that aligns with CDC guidelines and protocol.
“Turing Body Temperature Thermal Scanner is the preeminent market solution that aligns with CDC guideline and protocol.”
Here’s how the device works:
- The subject can trigger a text-based mobile CDC-approved Health Questionnaire. Once completed, it will provide a QR code which can activate the thermal scanner device.
- Once the thermal scanner is activated by the QR code, the device’s front-facing camera collects live streaming images and displays them in real-time on its screen.
- Turing’s patented AI software algorithm analyzes the incoming images stream and signals an alert when it recognizes and classifies any image candidate as a human face.
- After recognizing the face, the algorithm then pinpoints and detects the exact spot on the individual’s forehead where the temperature reading yields the highest accuracy.
- The device triangulates its built-in thermal sensor onto the forehead and triggers it to collect the subject’s forehead temperature; if the temperature is above the government-mandated threshold, an alarm is sent to appropriate office staff to take action
- The subject’s temperature, questionnaire responses, personal information (e.g. name, email, phone number), and time of entry are packaged into a unique data profile and transferred to a secure server, to be accessed as required for contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 exposure event.
The technical advantages the Turing Body Temperature Thermal Scanner holds over a temperature gun or a traditional thermometer are numerous:
- Produces rapid results, taking less than 0.5 seconds per scan/display
- Highly accurate, with results +/-0.5°F
- Complies with FDA and CDC COVID-19 policies
- Non-contact but can be applied from a distance of more than 6 feet, ensuring maximum safety for both administrators and subjects
- Can be mounted in a permanent secure location near the entryway so it can serve employees AND customers in a hassle-free process, increasing usage frequency and ROI and, more importantly creating safer environments to reduce the risk of COVID spread
- Provides managers essential record-keeping functions for screened subjects that can assist with contact tracing, mitigating legal risk.
“The best antidote against poisonous legal claims related to COVID-19 is extreme preparedness.”
One of the crucial challenges for the United States and its economy in the next few months will be transitioning people back to their offices safely and efficiently, applying lessons that have been learned from the start of the pandemic to enhance customer and employee safety while also anticipating and mitigating risk exposure and the associated possibility of lawsuits. The best antidote against poisonous legal claims related to COVID-19 is extreme preparedness, in the form of robust workplace safety plans and reliable office safety equipment and processes. For business owners aiming to survive these turbulent times, a stitch in time saves nine: your office can never be too safe and healthy to those who walk through your doors.