COVID 19 is creating tension between workers and their bosses. Some workers are suing.

“When this first came out, that was my concern,’’ Knapp said. “Small businesses would have to front the money for the leave, then take several months to claw back the (money). That might pose a significant financial problem for some small businesses.’’

The State
May 17, 2020

By Sammy Fretwell

In order to bring COVID-19 testing to the 29203 zip code, MUSC set up drive-thru testing at Eau Claire High School. As of Monday, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reported 75 positive cases out of a possible 536 in ZIP code 29203. 4/29/20 Tracy Glantz

With her children needing help and the coronavirus spreading, Jennifer Andrews decided to stay home from work as the highly contagious disease blanketed the Carolinas this spring.

Schools had closed to protect families from COVID 19, and online teaching would begin soon for Andrews’ kids. She needed to be there for them, Andrews said.

But after notifying her employer of her plans, the York County company fired Andrews and refused to pay her for the time she would spend away from work — despite new federal rules that require employees to be paid for leave they take under certain coronavirus-related circumstances..

Those allegations are contained in a lawsuit that is among the first in South Carolina to question whether companies are following rules Congress approved this spring to soften the economic blow of COVID 19 on employees. A flurry of similar suits is expected.

Filed last month, the state lawsuit comes as tensions mount between employees and the companies they work for over exposure to the coronavirus and the compensation workers are entitled to. Across the state, employees are expressing concerns about working conditions.

The rules that sparked Andrews’ lawsuit took effect April 1. Under the new rules, small businesses must pay workers two-thirds of their salaries for more than two months if employees must stay home to help children whose schools have closed.

The rules also say companies must pay employees their full pay for two weeks if they miss work to quarantine or recuperate from COVID 19, or pay them two-thirds of their salary for two weeks to take care of a sick loved one.

In exchange for paying workers who need time off to help children or to recuperate from the coronavirus, the law provides tax credits to small businesses so they can recoup the money later.

The idea is to keep people off of unemployment by helping them during a tough time, said Shaun Blake, who is handling the case for Andrews.

Blake said, however, that some businesses are resisting the requirement to pay people who need time off, despite the federal promise to grant the tax credits.

He also has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a West Columbia receptionist who said she wasn’t paid for time away from work that she is entitled to under the coronavirus rules Congress approved. Neither she nor Andrews wanted to comment, Blake said..

“This is a critical time for workers and their families,’’ Blake said. “Congress recognized this. It’s really important that employers are aware of their obligations.’’

Columbia attorney Malissa Burnette, whose firm focuses on employment law, said she expects a wave of lawsuits from employees over the new leave requirements. Her law firm has heard from some workers who said they were fired, rather than given leave by their employers during the coronavirus outbreak, she said.

“I expect there could be a lot of litigation over this,’’ she said. “I know of small employers that don’t even know how to pay overtime. They certainly haven’t read this law.’’

Some people question whether the new rules are an undue burden on small businesses, which in the past did not have to grant family leave time like large businesses did. Now, the new rules require small businesses to grant paid leave under certain conditions related to the coronavirus outbreak, Burnette said.

Frank Knapp, who heads the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, said he’s not surprised lawsuits are being filed by employees who say they need family leave or sick leave because of COVID 19.

Still, the April 1 emergency leave law could place a hardship on small businesses, Knapp said. Even though they would get tax credits, some may not have the money now to pay employees who are needed at work but can’t be there because of the coronavirus, he said.

“When this first came out, that was my concern,’’ Knapp said. “Small businesses would have to front the money for the leave, then take several months to claw back the (money). That might pose a significant financial problem for some small businesses.’’

South Carolina has about 400,000 small businesses, about three fourths of which are sole proprietors, Knapp said. The new rules, which are temporary, allow some of the smallest businesses to gain an exemption, depending on the circumstances.

Tensions growing

The dispute over paid time away from work is among a growing number of conflicts between workers affected by the coronavirus and their employers.

Across the state, employees are filing workplace safety complaints and some have picketed a chicken processing plant in West Columbia over what they called unsafe working conditions.

In some cases, nurses have told The State that the Prisma hospital system had discouraged them from wearing N95 protective masks while attending to some COVID 19 patients.

Prisma has denied it has done anything against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations, but nurses have said they worry about getting sick without what they consider the right equipment.

Meanwhile, the S.C. Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation has received at least 135 official complaints from workers at a variety of government agencies and private businesses.

The complaints included allegations that some businesses were allowing sick employees to come to work, were not following social distancing guidelines and were not providing proper protective equipment.

This past week the labor department said it had resolved 36 complaints, including 32 that were dismissed. It was investigating 99, and more complaints were expected. Of the four complaints found valid by the agency, three were for problems associated with bathrooms and the fourth was for employees being required to reuse surgical masks.

Workers who claim they became sick from working conditions also are expected to seek compensation. While attorneys say that could be difficult under the state’s workers’ compensation law, one S.C. legislator is looking at the issue.

Rep. Russell Fry, R-Horry, introduced legislation this past week that would allow health care workers and emergency services personnel to receive workers’ compensation if they get sick with the coronavirus on the job.

Restaurant workers are particularly concerned about losing income. Some are suing a regional steak franchise with restaurants in Columbia, Florence, Greenville and Spartanburg. They say they are owed for work they performed after the coronavirus was confirmed in South Carolina in early March.

Time off

As those issues simmer, people like Andrews and Jenna Hand, of West Columbia, say their employers left them out in the cold.

Andrews, who worked in York County but lives in North Carolina, sued Anderson Hydra Platforms on April 17, seeking compensation for the time she spent away from work tending to her children. She was not made available for this story and the suit did not say how much money she is seeking.

Court records show that Andrews, a plant and purchasing director, notified Anderson Hydra on April 1 that she would take time off with her children and was seeking compensation from the company. The children had been out of school prior to April 1 because N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper had shut down schools across the state in response to the coronavirus threat.

But after April 1, the day the new federal rules took effect, the children would begin a “home based, online course of school work that required increased involvement and day-to-day care by Andrews,’’ her lawsuit said. She is listed in the suit as the primary caretaker of her son and daughter, both under 18. The suit says they attend secondary schools.

When she didn’t hear from the company after her initial notice, she contacted Anderson Hydra again on April 2 and April 3, restating her request for paid leave under the new federal rules.

The company then sent a “backdated’’ termination letter saying her last day at work would be April 6, but indicating that she might be rehired April 20, according to the lawsuit. The company also said it would not pay her for any leave under the law, the suit said. It was not clear from the lawsuit if she had an opportunity to work from home.

Cyndi Dandridge, an executive with Anderson Hydra, declined comment on the case when reached Friday by The State. The company’s Facebook page says Anderson Hydra manufactures under bridge inspection platforms. The company is located in York.

The other case Blake has filed to force compliance with the April 1 time off rules involves a West Columbia receptionist who claims she was not paid for weeks after the coronavirus crisis hit South Carolina.

Hand, an employee at Carolina Scales Inc., said in her lawsuit that the company prevented her from working there until she could prove she did not have the coronavirus. But Hand said she was unable to get any medical center to test her and the company would not let her come back.

As a result, she was not allowed back at work after April 3 and presumes she has been fired, according to the lawsuit, filed April 21 in Lexington County. Records show she tried at least twice after April 1 to get tested, but had no luck.

Like Andrews, she was not made available for comment. But Carolina Scales executive Larry Keisler Jr. had plenty to say.

Keisler, whose company has been in business since the 1950s, said he paid Hand all she was owed and was disappointed she had sued the company. He said the allegations against his company are false and he’s got the documentation to prove it.

Carolina Scales, which has 16 employees, services and supplies industrial scales in the Carolinas and Georgia.

Keisler said he has no knowledge that Hand was told to stay away from the company, despite her allegations. The suit says she had an upper respiratory infection in March, but attorney Blake said that had cleared up by the time she was told to stay away.

“She abandoned the job,’’ Keisler said, noting that his company has its payroll done by a subcontractor. “Now, we’re getting all these other repercussions that are coming back. Everything has been documented, everything has been done 100 percent legal.’’

He said “on top of it, she was paid’’ as required by law under the emergency leave act.

“That’s the other thing that’s laughable in the whole case.’’

To Hand and Andrews, however, their cases are serious matters that need attention, said Blake, who said his clients are suffering.

“These people reached out to me because they needed that financial support and they didn’t have it,’’ he said. “It usually takes a lot for someone to call an employment attorney. It takes a lot of courage.’’

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