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I am currently working at a company in the United States. Out of privacy concerns, I cannot elaborate beyond that.

Over the past few weeks, our CEO has become increasingly concerned about COVID-19. They believe that if any of our employees became infected, our extended absence from work would be a considerable blow to the company and so, in order to prevent that, has now demanded that we all cut off all in-person human contact outside of our immediate families - no going to stores, no interacting with people in person, etc. They say that if we refuse to comply with this demand, we will be fired.

My vague understanding is that employers in the US can fire an employee for essentially any reason at all, but this seems like a violation of our human rights. Are there any laws to prevent something like this?

My relationship with this company has been great right up until this point, and I do not want to quit, but this recent crisis is now threatening to bring it all crashing down.

Just in case this needs stating: I don't need to hear any arguments about how this virus isn't as bad as my employer perceives it or doesn't require this degree of caution. Any attempt to convey such arguments would only fall on deaf ears and escalate the situation further.

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    Are they going to supply you with groceries?
    – user253751
    Mar 9 '20 at 19:18
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    How many employees is the CEO willing to fire to make his point while at the same time he is stating that you are each indispensable to the well-being of the company?
    – Jim
    Mar 9 '20 at 19:32
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    Have you asked this over at law SE? They might be better equipped to answer this question.
    – bob
    Mar 9 '20 at 20:42
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    recalled a Q that is very similar workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/139577/… Mar 9 '20 at 21:15
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    If you don't mind, which industry do you work in and what kind of role do you have in the company ? Plenty of good answers here. My 2 cents - Ask him how you will get groceries etc. If he has no acceptable answer, then pretend to listen and say its okay. Never inform anyone in the office about activities outside of work. You and family should not post anything to social media. Make your social media accounts private. Prepare for another job and leave once coronavirus is gone.
    – MasterJoe
    Mar 10 '20 at 1:39
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Can they? Yes

https://www.workplacefairness.org/off-duty-conduct#1

If you are at-will employed, unless the out-of-work activity you are doing is specifically protected in your state - your employer is legally able to fire you.

For example in most states with at-will employment, they could fire you for smoking cigarettes (outside of work).

However, it would be illegal to fire you for attending church - as religious freedom is specifically protected.

Will they? No
Firstly, how will they know? Unless you're raving about the "great weekend out clubbing" when you get to the office - nobody is going to be tracking how you're spending your free time.

Secondly, it's very likely to be an idle threat. It's very easy to throw the idea of "don't do this or else" at somebody - but realistically, not many people are willing to go through (expensive) recruiting costs just to make a point. If the boss truly was willing to fire all employees who don't isolate - they would be undermining their own plan of "avoid the office shutting down".

What should you do?
While in the office, just don't mention that you're going out - stay quiet, pretend you just spend the evenings at home, eating food from your stockpile.

But otherwise, although it's easier advice to give than to act on - an employer who feels it's their right to restrict your life to that degree is not somebody that values you at all. I would sincerely consider polishing up your CV and moving at the first chance you have.


Additional Note
Can I be fired for being sick? One worry that's come up in the comments, is that if you contracted the virus - could they fire you for that?

The answer there is no, at least probably not.

https://www.employmentlawfirms.com/resources/employment/wrongful-termination/can-employer-fire-someone-being-sick

In brief, the FMLA (federal act) gives employees (who work for businesses with at least 50 employees), the right to take off "12 weeks in a 12 month period - because the employee is incapacitated by a serious health condition" (amongst other health reasons).

A serious health condition is one that requires:

  • inpatient care at a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility

  • incapacity for more than three full calendar days with continuing treatment by a health care provider

I would imagine it is likely that the quarantine imposed on you by health professionals - would fulfill that second criteria, so you would be covered. However, there doesn't appear to be any blanket-rule for COVID-19 as yet - so it may depend on the severity of your infection.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Mar 10 '20 at 12:16
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Your boss is afraid (understandably). Being a boss does not bring a complete immunity of fear. And the boss does whatever a boss does when they want very much something their way - they treaten to fire someone. It usually works.

If you are so much valuable to your company that getting sick will be a "considerable blow", then firing you is probably going to be a lot worse for the company. And you don't become CEO by not understanding things like that.

Just be patient and wait. Most people recover from panic pretty well - even when the danger is still around.

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    This does not answer the OP's question. Mar 9 '20 at 19:49
  • Yup... also, a CEO's fear is never a justification for bad acts. If the CEO is concerned about their employees' availability during a health crisis, they can take positive steps, rather than this pretty egregious threat.
    – Dancrumb
    Mar 10 '20 at 3:25
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    I don't understand how this has downvotes.... it's obvious the boss' fear and proposed solutions are not rational and not good backing for any particular policy. This will become obvious to that CEO soon. Mar 10 '20 at 4:18
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    @user1234567890abcdef It simply doesn't answer the question that was posted, hence the downvotes. Whatever the bosses reasons, can he legally dictate these factors of OP's private life? "Be patient and wait" simply doesn't help anwer that. Mar 10 '20 at 10:41
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My vague understanding is that employers in the US can fire an employee for essentially any reason at all, but this seems like a violation of our human rights. Are there any laws to prevent something like this?

Probably not. You are protected to an extent with HIPAA laws that protect your health information from being released. You may have certain laws protecting you within your state but nothing on the federal levels.

You may also want to check any employer contract you may have signed. In some cases, they may have clauses about engaging in dangerous activities. This might be a grey area but if there are coronavirus cases in your area and you knowingly go out to areas where you can contract it, then you may be defaulting on your contract.

In the end though, your employer could fire you for that reason. However, in law it might be considered actionable but in the end you're going to waste a lot of time and money for unspecific damages. Best to just use common sense flu protection and just follow the coronavirus guidelines. If there are cases in your area, aside from your employer it might be a smart idea to stay home when you can.

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  • Thank you. This is good information. I accepted Bilkokuya's answer, but I have upvoted yours. Mar 9 '20 at 16:17
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    How does HIPAA apply to going out to the grocery store?
    – stannius
    Mar 9 '20 at 19:25
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    @stannius it doesn't. This answer doesn't make much sense to me. Your employer certainly can't find out that you've contracted COVID19 if you don't want them to - HIPAA is relevant in that scenario - but that doesn't sound applicable to OP's situation at all.
    – Alex M
    Mar 9 '20 at 19:46
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    IANAL but my understanding is that only covered entities (basically health care providers, insurance providers, etc.) are bound by HIPAA. The rest of us aren't. That's why you can legally share your own health care data as you choose, but your doctor is restricted in its ability to share that same data. Unless the employer is also involved in OP's medical care in some way, I don't think HIPAA applies here. Here's an article that goes into more detail: hipaajournal.com/who-does-hipaa-apply-to
    – bob
    Mar 9 '20 at 20:39

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