How Coronavirus And An Obscure State Law Could Pave The Way For Telecommuting Rights
Ask the average person to rattle off a list of groups protected from employment discrimination, and their responses tend to fall off a cliff after race, religion, and gender. But Title VII’s protections actually extend quite a bit further, and even more so at the state level. One such extension exists in Texas under Labor Code Section 22.002 — the right to evacuate in the event of a declared state of disaster:
An employer may not discharge or in any other manner discriminate against an employee who leaves the employee’s place of employment to participate in a general public evacuation ordered under an emergency evacuation order.
Okay, nifty. But weren’t we supposed to be talking about Coronavirus and telecommuting? Why is this law relevant to the topics at hand? For that, we should dive a bit further into the legalese.
Can a virus — or even the threat of it — qualify as a relevant disaster? Yes. Per Texas Law Enforcement Code, Chapter 418:
“Disaster” means the occurrence or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from any natural or man-made cause, including… epidemic, air contamination…
And having declared a disaster, can the government control the mobility of residents? Yes. Again from Code 418:
[Officials] may control ingress and egress to and from a disaster area and the movement of persons and the occupancy of premises in the area.
Humor me as I recap, for the purpose of setting precedent:
- An employee has a civil right to avoid their job site under a government-declared evacuation order
- The government may order an evacuation in the event of an epidemic
- Under such an order, the government may control the mobility of a population and the occupancy of premises
Now, the last two points are pretty much table stakes for any state or national government. But that first item is unique to Texas, and being the ambitious armchair attorney that I am, I believe there’s room for a rather interesting interpretation here — one that revolves around a key point of influential ambiguity.