RIVERSIDE COUNTY, Calif. - Can an employer that refuses to let employees work remotely during COVID-19 surges be liable for that employee’s infection or even their death from the virus?
An Inland Empire family is alleging just that in a lawsuit against Riverside County. They claim that 61-year-old Michael Haywood, a 15-year employee of the County’s Flood Control and Water Conservation District, repeatedly warned supervisors that safety guidelines, like mask-wearing, were not being followed at the workplace. They say he requested to work remotely, as he had done at the beginning of the pandemic, because he was a cancer survivor with other pre-existing conditions, including hypertension and diabetes.
They say they denied his request, and he tested positive for COVID-19, along with other co-workers, in December 2020. He was hospitalized on Christmas Day, and died in February.
His wife also contracted the disease, and according to the lawsuit, suffers from long-term symptoms. Aside from his widow, Michael leaves behind four adult children and 11 grandchildren.
County officials say they have not reviewed the lawsuit, but did issue a statement expressing condolences for Haywood’s death, adding that, "The county takes necessary coronavirus precautions to prevent and stop the spread of COVID-19. This includes working closely with all county departments, local and state public health officials and CalOSHA to ensure best practices are followed for the safety and wellbeing of county employees."
Haywood died in the winter of 2020-21, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not yet authorized any vaccines. "Two months later," Elizabeth said through tears, "He could have gotten his vaccine."
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