On March 10, 2020, Governor Lamont declared civil preparedness and public health emergencies related to the COVID-19 outbreak. The primary effect of those declarations is that the Governor is empowered to take actions in order to protect the safety and health of residents in the State. This authority can be quite broad, so employers may be wondering how the declarations affect their operations and interactions with employees.
The short answer is that the mere declaration of an emergency does not immediately impact the state or federal laws governing the employment relationship. However, the Governor and/or local governmental authorities may use the declarations to make changes that would impact employees. For example, the Governor could mandate the closure of schools and the cancellation of large gatherings. Currently, those decisions are being delegated to local municipal and public health officials, but we may see a broader impact on a statewide basis if more people are diagnosed with the disease.
From a legal perspective, the Governor’s declarations also open up the possibility that he could suspend the application of certain laws that would affect employees. For example, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 28-9 states that the Governor has the authority to “modify or suspend in whole or in part” any statute, regulation or requirement that conflicts with civil preparedness or the protection of public health. This expansive authority only requires that the Governor articulate a clear connection between the suspension of a law and the need for such a suspension in light of the emergency. Under this authority, the Governor could, if he chooses, suspend certain state labor and employment laws. Note that the Governor’s powers have no effect on federal laws (FMLA, FLSA, ADA, etc.), so those laws would continue to apply regardless of any changes in state law.
To date, the Governor has not taken any action related to the state’s labor or employment laws. However, he is soliciting recommendations from various state agencies on how to address the COVID-19 outbreak. Therefore, employers should continue to watch for updates on https://portal.ct.gov/Coronavirus, and we will continue to report new developments here. In the interim, employers should continue to follow all applicable laws related to the employment relationship. One such law that employers should be aware of is Conn. Gen. Stat. § 28-17, which makes it illegal for an employee to be discharged because the employee is a “member of any organization engaged in civil preparedness.” If you have any employees who are involved in such organizations and are called upon to serve during this outbreak, you should give some latitude to the employees to fulfill their role in the organization.