(@Work Advice) | , 2015
Reader: I work for a medium-size family-owned company. I recently discovered my apartment was infested with bedbugs and arranged for pest control to exterminate them. I informed my boss that I would need two days off to prepare for the treatment. I was immediately sent home from work and told I could not return without written assurance from my landlady that there are no bedbugs in the unit.
My workplace had a bedbug infestation a few years ago and spent $7,000 on treatments. My boss says the company cannot afford to risk another infestation and insists that the company has the right to keep me out of the office. My state labor hotline told me the company has the right under “employment at will.”
The treatment will take several weeks. I am not being paid during this absence and cannot afford to stay out of work. I am applying for unemployment benefits for this period, but don’t know if I’ll qualify.
My manager has been asking intrusive questions, demanding to know what type of treatment I am having done and whether I have bought a new bed (I have, but don’t think that’s anyone’s business). Do I have any recourse?
Karla: Unfortunately, your employer seems to be within its legal rights in treating you like a kid with cooties — even though bedbugs, like head lice, are more stigmatized nuisance than health hazard. And worse, if you don’t have paid leave you can use and can’t work remotely, your employer has no obligation to pay you (different rules might apply to exempt workers).
It’s understandable that your employer would be bugging out. Aside from the treatment cost, the company could be liable if it knowingly allowed employees to be exposed to itch-hikers through the workplace or a carrier co-worker.
Since you’ve identified yourself as a potential vector, your best recourse is continued transparency. Documentation from pest control and a receipt for your new mattress would show you have nothing to hide. Online information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and some state health departments might arm you with facts about how bedbugs spread and whether there are workable alternatives to a home quarantine. And in addition to seeking unemployment benefits, you might research your state’s apartment leasing laws or your rental contract to see if the owner of your building bears some responsibility.
I’m sorry I don’t have better news, and I hope your ordeal ends quickly. And now if you’ll excuse me, I feel a sudden need for a scalding shower.
Thanks to attorney Richard I. Greenberg, Jackson Lewis (New York).