The Moneyist: One of my coworkers was diagnosed with coronavirus, but the office was not cleaned. Can I be fired for refusing to go in?

The Moneyist: One of my coworkers was diagnosed with coronavirus, but the office was not cleaned. Can I be fired for refusing to go in?

26 Mar    Finance News

Dear Moneyist,

One of my coworkers was diagnosed with the coronavirus; she is a medical assistant at our dermatology office. We believe she got it from another coworker. No one wants to go in because the place has not been professional disinfected or cleaned.

The owner is also seeing patients that are from Lakewood, N.J., one of the hot spots for the virus, and they are not using any precautions. They are, in my opinion, making it worse and spreading it. I refuse to go into the office. Could I be fired?

I do not feel safe going back.

Staying Home

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Dear Staying,

I stand with you and your colleagues who have decided to stay home.

Your boss should not be seeing patients. In fact, he should not be seeing anybody right now. He’s putting them at risk of infection, and he’s putting himself and his family members at risk, too. You should not be seeing each other, either. COVID-19, the disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, appears to be highly contagious.

While the office should, of course, receive a medical-level terminal cleaning to avoid any contamination, it’s important for anyone who has come into contact with your colleague to remain in quarantine for at least 14 days, and tell anyone they have been in contact with, too. COVID-19 has an incubation period of 2 to 14 days. So if you were exposed, you too could spread it.

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And so to your question: Yes, he could fire you. You would likely have a case for unfair dismissal but, given the court closures in your state, that could take some time. Given his recklessness in continuing to treat patients and allow them to enter his office when he too has likely been exposed to one or more employees who have tested positive, he could face serious legal consequences.

The government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “general duty” clause states that an employer should provide a safe environment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” You could come to serious harm. Do not go back. At least, not yet.

Report his office to your local health authority and, if necessary, the state licensing board. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, this week gave out a number to lodge complaints against employers in the state that may be violating Executive Order No. 107 (EO 107). It sounded like a good idea. It was. Too good. So many people called the number that it was withdrawn.

You can now file a report online.

Executive Order 107 states: “All businesses or non-profits in the state, whether closed or open to the public, must accommodate their workforce, wherever practicable, for telework or work-from-home arrangements.” You may or may not be able to work from home, but disregarding the rules on quarantine could have repercussions for your boss that go beyond temporary closure.

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SARS-CoV-2 is detectable in the air for up to three hours, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to 2 to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel, according to a paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine. It was coauthored by scientists at the National Institutes of Health, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, UCLA and Princeton University.

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I don’t know why people do the things they do. Some folks might say it’s greed: “Does he not have enough money?” Others could point to ego: “Who does he think he is — putting others at risk and not abiding by standard safety protocol for such situations?” I prefer to see it as fear: Fear of economic insecurity, perhaps, or not being at the top of your game, or fear of the real world itself.

You need to act. You may even end up helping him in ways you could not predict.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at

Coronavirus update for readers:

Coronavirus had infected at least 82,404 people in the U.S. as of Thursday evening and killed at least 1,178 people, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering. New York State accounts for roughly 50% of the national total, and 7% of global cases. Worldwide, there were 526,044 confirmed cases of the virus and 22,993 reported deaths.

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