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Can your boss make you come to work during a pandemic?

Michelle Sylvester refuses to go back to work because she doesn’t want to risk spreading coronavirus.

The Long Beach, California-based hairstylist said most of her clients are over 75 years old. The salon she works at remains open, but she is staying home until health agencies say the COVID-19 crisis is over. 

“I can’t put my life in danger and their lives in danger for a couple of dollars,” Sylvester said.

As an independent contractor, she’s well within her rights to avoid showing up for work without risking her job. But are you?

As the coronavirus pandemic ramps up, workers might be wondering what rights they have if (or when) their higher-ups request that they return to the office. And with President Trump pressing for the economy to be “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” one of the most pressing questions is: Can your boss actually force you to work during a pandemic?

Experts say the answer is no, but the laws aren’t so clear-cut.

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“The answer depends on the job you have,” said Richard Reice, a lawyer who heads the labor enforcement division at the law firm Michelman & Robinson.

Coronavirus sign against map background.

If your local government defines your role as an “essential,” you may have to comply with your employer’s wishes or risk termination. 

“If you are performing an essential job, like a pharmacist at a local CVS, a police officer or sanitation worker, your employer can say to you should come to work,” Reice said.  “If you don’t, that would be insubordination, misconduct or quitting.”

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