The armrest on the bus was stabbing me in my side. The seat on the small van was too small
You Have a Right Not to Get Sick. It's Under Assault.
What the law actually says.
There was a time when some of us didn't think we had to worry that much about getting sick. Those days are over.
To some extent, that belief was always an ableist illusion based on widely held fallacies about how our immune system worked. These days, we have no idea what's floating in the air anymore. Every sniffle could be Covid, RSV, flu, tuberculosis, pneumonia, or something worse.
We have a right not to get sick.
It's under assault.
CEOs are trying to ban their employees from wearing masks. Teachers and administrators are forcing students to take them off, calling them "unnecessary." They're forcing us to work or attend class even when we're severely ill, and even during surges of respiratory diseases. These are violations of our rights. Given the circumstances, I thought it was important to nail down exactly what rights we have.
Here's what I found:
In 2021, our rights felt secure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) even fined a Liberty Tax branch $136,000 for trying to ban masks. It only took OSHA three weeks to investigate and issue the fine.
These kinds of protections lean on guidance from state health departments and the CDC.
For example, a barista in Kansas was forced to quit her job in 2020 when her manager told her to take off her mask. It was only after the CDC updated mask guidelines that the coffee chain shifted their policy. These companies generally back down in the face of legal threats and public pressure.
Since "let it rip" became the dominant mentality across the world, anti-maskers have gotten bolder, but the law remains on our side. We have the right to wear a mask. We also have the right to stay home when we're extremely sick, and we have the right to refuse to work with someone when they're contagious with a dangerous illness. Our right to protect ourselves supersedes the other claims or justifications anyone else gives.
Protecting those rights?
That's the hard part.
Employers won a major victory when the California Supreme Court ruled in their favor, saying they aren't liable for "take home Covid." Worse, dozens of states have passed Covid shield laws. For example, Ohio has made it impossible to prosecute or sue anyone for a Covid infection unless it was "by reckless conduct or intentional misconduct or willfully or wanton misconduct" by the employer.
If your employer threatens to fire you for wearing a mask or forces you to work with someone who's sick, then you should document it. That counts as reckless.
Under the duties section of the 1970 OSHA law, employers have to provide "employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."
Covid absolutely fits this description.
More on that in a minute...
OSHA standards also require employers to provide respirators when "effective engineering controls are not feasible, or while they are being instituted."
These standards don't mention viruses specifically, but they do say employers have to provide respirators "to protect the health" of their employees. Employers can also "permit employees to use their own respirators...if the employer determines that such respirator use will not in itself create a hazard." An employer is going to have a very hard time proving in court that an N95 mask presents a hazard to anyone.
Not seeing your server's smile...
That's not a hazard.
Under OSHA, you can legally refuse to work if your employer fails to provide you with a safe work environment. There's a catch: You're only protected if "a reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury."
This is why the corporate media has invested so much time and energy in convincing the public that Covid no longer poses a threat to anyone. They're stacking the "reasonable person" clause. Anti-maskers are exploiting this loophole when they force people to remove their masks.
If they can convince everyone it's unreasonable or irrational to fear Covid, it frees them of liability.
But the facts are on your side.
In California, the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health has been protecting the rights of workers to wear masks. Under the state's nonemergency Covid standards, "Employers must allow employees to wear face coverings if they voluntarily choose to do so, unless it would create a safety hazard." In case you're wondering, NIOSH-approved N95 respirators and even surgical masks aren't flammable.
The CDC continues to recommend masks for anyone who wants protection, including anyone who works at a "job where you interact with large numbers of the public, especially when not everyone is consistently wearing a mask. For example, bus drivers and grocery store workers." They also recommend masks when riding on public transportation or when you're in "crowded indoor or outdoor public settings." They don't say it out loud very often, but it's right there and you can show that to your boss.
The legal argument in favor of mask bans relied on herd immunity through vaccination and infection. It also relied on the false assumption that Covid poses no risk to healthy people. The science has debunked all of that.
Now we know:
- Covid poses a serious long-term health risk to everyone through neurological, cardiovascular, and immune system damage. Even the CDC estimates that 1 in 5 Covid survivors develop a long-term health condition, regardless of how mild their infection feels.
- Anywhere from 20-50 percent of Covid spread happens before symptoms, or without symptoms at all. So a reasonable person could assume they're always at risk of infection.
- Dozens of studies have confirmed what the CDC and WHO admit, that vaccines offer temporary protection against Covid. Two doses of vaccine offer a modest 37 percent reduction in risk for Long Covid, and only for those who were vaccinated before their first infection.
- Your risk of Long Covid goes up with each infection, even if you're boosted.
- Dozens of studies have shown that respirators and high-quality masks offer protection.
Those are the five crucial legal arguments for our right to wear a mask. If you know this, then any reasonable person would expect their employer to at least permit them to wear a respirator. Even the CDC recommends it.
These same rights apply to indoor air quality. So if your boss or a school principal is giving you a hard time about HEPA purifiers or UVC devices, they're setting themselves up for a legal battle.
Now about forcing people to work when they're sick: that's also illegal. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, your employer can't force you to work if you're too sick to perform your job duties. Unfortunately, there's a ton of loopholes. First, you only get protection after a full year of employment, and you have to work 1,250 hours to qualify. If your company employs less than 50 people, you're not protected.
Now for the hard part:
As we've learned, what counts as legal or illegal isn't objective at all. The legal system responds to public sentiment and prevailing cultural norms. Again, that's why billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are so interested in buying up newspapers and social media platforms. It gives them a lot of influence over public opinion and social beliefs.
The law protects us, but it needs a lot of work. We need every state to adopt legal protections like California that defend our right to mask. We need those protections extended to schools and every other public setting, and we need to make them permanent.
Anti-maskers have been using intimidation and scare tactics for years. Employers rely on the fact that their workers don't know their rights, and most of them will decide it's not worth losing their jobs in the short term, even if they prevail in court.
We live in a world where a large percentage of CEOs and shareholders see safety as "a waste." Blinded by greed, they can't see the larger financial and economic costs of a society where everyone routinely gets sick with diseases that cause long-term damage. In the end, they have no legal or ethical reason to compel someone else to take off their masks. And they have no valid right to force anyone to work when they're ill.
We have a right not to get sick.
It's under assault.
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