Joseph Seiner

COVID-19 impact: Changes in the workplace

Law professor explains how the coronavirus is affecting workplaces and employees

As the coronavirus threatens health and upends daily life throughout the world, UofSC Today is turning to our faculty to help us make sense of it all. While no one can predict exactly what will happen in the coming weeks and months, our faculty can help us ask the right questions and put important context around emerging events.

Joseph Seiner is a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who specializes in labor and employment law. We asked him about how the coronavirus is affecting workplaces and employees in South Carolina and around the country.

If there is one employment principle you would want people to understand about employment implications of a pandemic, what would it be?

South Carolina, and almost all other states, follow the doctrine of employment-at-will, which provides that an employer may terminate an employee for any reason at any time. From a purely legal standpoint, with some notable exceptions, employees thus have few protections, even in this challenging environment.

What are some of the factors employees should be aware of with respect to employment law and employee rights?

While employment-at-will governs most employees, workers may still be able to avail themselves of certain protections in this difficult environment. Most notably, unionized workers are typically governed by the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, which may provide protections. Other employees may have guarantees found in an employment manual or an individual employment contract.  And, employers with 50 or more employees are governed by the Family Medical Leave Act, which gives workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a personal illness or to care for a close family member with an illness.

What do you see as a range of possible outcomes relating to employees/employers? Once the pandemic is over, will workplaces be changed?

Once this pandemic is over, look for legislatures, both on the state and federal level, to revisit guaranteed paid sick leave for workers, more robust unemployment benefit, and stronger employment protections generally in the workplace setting. The results of that dialogue will be unclear, but there is certain to be a renewed national discussion on these issues.

What advice would you offer to both companies and employees about ways to prepare, get through, and, eventually, move past this pandemic?

Employers should do their best to be flexible with workers right now, who are facing enormous personal and economic challenges. This may mean allowing more work at home and flexible or reduced hours.  Similarly, employees must remain flexible in how and where they perform their jobs, as companies struggle to respond to the quickly changing environment. Communication is key, and workers and employers must interact more than ever to clearly understand goals and expectations.