Towards Justice Wins Sick Pay for Denver Mattress Driver

Client’s case not uncommon during pandemic, employers should get up to speed on obligations

An 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling held up a lower court’s award of $106 million in a decades-long case involving bad actors and a bank's involvement in a Ponzi-like scheme.

Towards Justice recently got justice for a Denver Mattress employee who was allegedly denied paid sick leave after coming down with COVID-19, and an attorney with the non-profit law firm says their client’s case isn’t an isolated incident. 

According to Towards Justice attorney Valerie Collins, the client, a delivery driver for Denver Mattress, was called to an in-person meeting in June with other drivers at the company. Another participant mentioned he was feeling sick and was waiting for COVID-19 test results, prompting other drivers to ask about sick leave and whether the sick employee could go home and still get paid. 

“The drivers were told, essentially, no, because that’s not [the employer’s] problem,” Collins said. “It was basically the manager’s position that… in order to qualify for paid sick leave, you have to show that you actually contracted COVID at your job. And, factually, that’s wrong.”

Later the day of the meeting, Collins said, the driver awaiting test results learned he was positive for COVID-19. Towards Justice’s client then went to get tested and, after getting a positive result, started following state guidelines to self-quarantine for 14 days. About 10 days in, Collins said, the driver’s manager called to ask when he would be returning to work.

However, John Knippenberg, marketing director for Furniture Row Companies, parent company of Denver Mattress, said no employees have been denied sick leave or encouraged to work while sick. 

“There was an allegation that an employee was encouraged to work while he was ill or symptomatic. That was not the case,” Knippenberg wrote in an e-mail. 

“To the contrary and consistent with our policy of requiring employees to stay home if they test positive for COVID-19 or are symptomatic, the employee was required to stay home and not return to work until he received a negative test result for COVID-19,” the e-mail stated. “Denver Mattress has maintained that same requirement for all other employees who have been ill or symptomatic.”

On July 14, Towards Justice sent a demand letter to the employer informing the company the client was entitled to up to two weeks of paid leave at two-thirds his regular pay rate under Colorado’s Health Emergency Leave with Pay Rules enacted in March. 

The letter also said Denver Mattress was covered by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires employers to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave at the regular rate of pay if an employee is under quarantine for COVID-19. 

Towards Justice demanded payment for the client pursuant to the Colorado Wage Act. 

“Denver Mattress did respond positively to the demand letter and has paid him sick leave for that time,” Collins said.

“Obviously, it doesn’t erase that anxiety and fear and the ripple effect of other people who might also have come in thinking that they were not going to get paid [if they stayed home],” she said. “But it’s always great when employers are able to recognize their mistake and do the right thing.”

Collins said some of the client’s coworkers have also contacted the firm, but wasn’t sure whether other Denver Mattress employees have been paid sick leave. In his e-mail, Knippenberg said that “to the extent that other employees have taken COVID-related sick leave, Denver Mattress has paid those employees in accordance with HELP and now [the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act],” Colorado’s new paid sick leave law.

“I don’t think this is uncommon,” Collins said. “People are scared. If you’re in a position where you have to choose between your livelihood and your health, it’s really difficult. So we have heard lots of stories of people who [are] worried and still go to work.” She has also heard of employers not paying the full amount owed, which varies depending on the applicable laws. 

Collins said that in most cases, it’s probably ignorance, not malice, that is causing employers to withhold sick pay amid the pandemic. 

“I think a lot of it is there’s so much information, and there’s so much new information constantly being rolled out as the virus changes and the responses change in terms of what employers are required to do and when,” Collins said. “I really think it’s just not having the information and not understanding their legal obligations.” 

“I think the main takeaway for everyone … is to really understand the current guidelines and know what your obligations are, because it’s crucial — not just for that individual workplace,” Collins said, “but for their families and their communities and for everyone to prevent community spread.”

—Jessica Folker

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