Ohio Passes COVID Immunity Law - Employers Beware

Earlier this month, the Ohio legislature passed and the Governor signed into law House Bill 606, which provides qualified immunity to employers who are accused of spreading COVID-19. It goes into effect on December 13, 2020 and covers conduct between March 9, 2020 and September 30, 2021.  The new law provides immunity for businesses from customers and employees bringing lawsuits alleging exposure, transmission, or contraction of COVID-19 in a place of business, unless the owner’s or employer’s actions amounted to reckless conduct or willful misconduct.  This is obviously good news for Ohio businesses and employers - as far as it goes. 

Unfortunately, some employers seem to view the new law as providing much broader immunity than it actually does; some are even under the impression that they cannot be sued for anything related to COVID-19.  This is not the case.  The potential employment law claims covered are relatively narrow and are not the ones most likely to be brought against employers for conduct relating to COVID-19.  The immunity covers claims of negligence when an employee contracts COVID-19 at work.  In most instances, such claims would be legally suspect and difficult to prove - that they are off the table is still good news in that it saves employers from having to defend against them, if nothing else.

The problem is that employers are far more likely to be sued for any number of claims that are not covered by the new law.  A few examples include:

Claims based on Leave: Many employers continue to struggle with the proper application of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which remains in effect through the end of the year.  In addition to the confusion over the forms of leave provided, employees who utilize leave are protected from retaliation, creating further potential liability.

Disability and Accommodation Claims: While COVID-19 is not likely a disability itself, several other health conditions may require accommodation in light of the circumstances imposed by the pandemic.  In particular, employees with conditions that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 may seek accommodations.  Employers need to be prepared to respond appropriately to such requests.

Claims based on Reductions in Force (RIFs): Many businesses have reduced their workforces in 2020 because of the impact of COVID-19.  The selection criteria for the RIFs can give rise to state and federal discrimination claims as well as WARN claims depending on the size and timing of the RIFs.

The above list is by no means exhaustive but it is representative of the most common issues and claims we are currently seeing.  The takeaway - the immunity law is helpful but employers must remain vigilant and closely manage the issues raised by the pandemic for the foreseeable future.

For assistance with employment issues, contact any member of our Labor & Employment Group, or the KMK Law Coronavirus (COVID-19) Response Team for further assistance.

KMK Law articles and blog posts are intended to bring attention to developments in the law and are not intended as legal advice for any particular client or any particular situation. The laws/regulations and interpretations thereof are evolving and subject to change. Although we will attempt to update articles/blog posts for material changes, the article/post may not reflect changes in laws/regulations or guidance issued after the date the article/post was published. Please consult with counsel of your choice regarding any specific questions you may have.


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