COVID-19 pandemic spurs spike in workplace litigation cases; what businesses should be watching for

October 10, 2023

Ongoing unrest associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is leading to a rise in workplace litigation nationwide.More than 4,200 employment litigation cases were filed in the U.S. from early 2020 through early January 2022. That’s according to data compiled by Fisher Phillips LLP, a national law firm specializing in employment and labor law. Issues pertaining to remote work/leave conflicts and employment discrimination combine to account for more than 2,000 of those workplace litigation cases.However, COVID-19 employment litigation generally has been less prevalent in the central part of the country, the Fisher Phillips data shows.Kansas has 12 workplace litigation cases, which is fewer than surrounding states Missouri (51), Colorado (50) and Oklahoma (15). Nebraska has six cases, according to the data. California has the most workplace litigation cases with 1,128.Employment attorneys and human resources professionals expect the nationwide totals to continue trending upward as employers wrestle with vaccine policies and requests for COVID-19 accommodations. Disability and religious discrimination claims are expected to be among the most common claims as more people seek exemption from vaccination policies.

Smaller employers are more susceptible to workplace litigation claims

Employment litigation can hit smaller employers harder than larger ones. The Fisher Phillips analysis finds businesses with 100 or fewer employees are being sued at a greater rate than larger employers.Businesses with 50 or fewer employees are the subject of 31 percent of COVID-19-related lawsuits, according to the Fisher Phillips data. That number climbs to 41 percent when businesses with 51 to 100 employees are factored in.Experts say smaller businesses may be more at risk for employment litigation because they tend to have less robust compliance systems in place, and many still may be merely operating in survival mode due to ongoing challenges from the pandemic.

Dealing with allegations of employment discrimination

Employers should take a allegations of employment discrimination seriously regardless of whether the claims are tied to COVID-19 or something more general in nature. The key is to conduct an internal investigation when matters like this come to light. This can help the company defend itself against potential legal claims.Experts say the goal of the investigation should be to determine:

  • Whether any misconduct occurred.
  • The person or people involved.
  • Appropriate discipline.
  • Any steps the company can take to prevent a similar incident or incidences in the future.

Connor Cross, Director of Human Resources for Syndeo, says employers should conduct an initial interview and collect a statement from the person or people making the complaint. Obtaining documentation or names of witnesses to corroborate the claims also is important, Cross says.Documentation then should be reviewed and witnesses interviewed. Statements from these individuals also should be collected at this time.The accused party also should be interviewed and given an opportunity to present a statement.“The most important piece of advice is to act quickly,” Cross says. “Once an employee makes a claim of discrimination, it is important to respond to the employee quickly to let them know the company takes these complaints seriously and that an investigation will be conducted.”Syndeo, a Kansas-based HR outsourcing provider, typically handles the entire investigation process for its clients.Cross says employers can create liability for themselves by failing to properly investigate allegations of employment discrimination or dragging out the investigative process.Employers must take swift action in accordance with the guidelines set in their progressive discipline policy if the discrimination allegations are found to have merit.Cross says employers can prevent discrimination in the workplace by having a clear and thorough anti-discrimination policy and conducting regular trainings on topics such as diversity, inclusion, anti-discrimination and workplace etiquette.About us: As the Heartland’s leading employer services company, Syndeo partners with local business owners to help them minimize risk, improve efficiency and maximize profitability allowing them the freedom to focus on growth and fulfilling their mission. Syndeo fulfills its mission by taking on all of the HR responsibilities for our clients’ workforce, including employee relations, benefits, risk management and payroll. Winner of the 2020 and 2021 Best of HR Services Award through ClearlyRated for providing superior client service. See our ClearlyRated profile here.

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