- In 2020, the coronavirus spurred at least 1,005 workplace lawsuits, according to Seyfarth Shaw LLP's Jan. 5 Workplace Class Action Litigation Report. The firm expects "even more" pandemic-related lawsuits in 2021 as businesses resume operations.
- Terminations were the most common subject of COVID-19 workplace litigation; such allegations were made more than three times as often as the next most frequently alleged claim. Broken down by industry, health care employers saw the most, at 198 lawsuits, followed by business services (128) and manufacturing (99).
- "We anticipate that the tide of workplace class action litigation will continue to rise in several key areas such as discrimination and workplace bias, wage & hour, as well as on the health & safety front," Seyfarth said in its report. "Employers are apt to see these workplace class actions expand and morph as businesses restart operations in 2021 in the wake of COVID-19, particularly as courts roll out a patchwork quilt of rulings."
In July, law firm Fisher Phillips released findings that 283 COVID-19 workplace lawsuits had been filed, with June's filings representing an "exponential" increase. It appears the trend continued, with filings adding up significantly throughout the last half of 2020.
Compliance with state and federal mandates became a key theme in employers' response to the coronavirus. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission emphasized anti-discrimination laws when the first wave of the virus began in March, urging employers to implement pandemic-response measures with an equal hand. When the agency released guidance allowing employers to measure applicants' body temperatures, for instance, it stipulated that employers must do so for "all entering employees in the same type of job," regardless of whether the person has a disability.
Employers also had to adapt to new and updated laws as the pandemic unfolded. The passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act to establish a paid sick leave requirement for employees. This has led to a spate of lawsuits with claims ranging from illegal terminations to wrongly denied leave.
As employers enter the new year, it's likely pandemic-related compliance will remain an important area. The Biden administration will likely adopt stricter safety measures, sources previously told HR Dive. Already, the president-elect has said he will ask the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to reconsider its decision to skip emergency coronavirus standards. And as the vaccine delivers hope of a return to some sort of normalcy, employers will need to decide how to handle employees who decide to forgo a vaccine. Additionally, they'll need to navigate a transition away from telecommuting — something that could trigger discrimination claims.