Q: I’ve been working from home since late March. At first I thought I’d hate working remotely; instead, I love it. My work day is relaxed because I don’t have to put up with my micro-managing supervisor and can walk my dog during the day rather than waiting until after five. Working at home gives me something I haven’t had for a long time: work/life balance.
Fast forward to May 1. My supervisor sends all of us an email saying we need to return to work May 4. My heart sank. Do COVID-19 risks give me the chance to say I need to work from home due to health concerns?
A: The short answer — probably not. The long answer — possibly.
Let’s look at your primary reasons for wanting to continue remote work. Anchorage’s “hunker down” order surfaced your dissatisfaction with how your supervisor manages you. It’s shown you how much you enjoy work/life balance.
You don’t indicate whether you’re giving your employer a full work day. An informal telephone survey we completed last week indicates that many managers and employees working from home appear to be working five to six rather than eight hours a day. As a result, productivity has plummeted for many Anchorage employers, who understandably want their staff to return to the workplace.
As a secondary reason, you express understandable health concerns. The Occupational Safety and Health Act protects employees who refuse to return to work if they reasonably believe fear working would place them in imminent danger. For an employee to prove this to a regulatory body, however, an employee needs to show more than a generalized fear of contracting COVID-19. You can do this in one of two ways. First, perhaps your employer hasn’t yet arranged a reasonably safe working environment for you. If so, voice your concerns, giving your employer a chance to fix the situation for you and your coworkers. Employers need to address their employees’ fear of returning to the workplace by complying with all CDC guidelines, such as cleaning with disinfectant, physical distancing, ensuring the supply of sanitizers and personal protective equipment, temperature screening employees and sending home any employee who appears ill or has a fever.
Second, you may be a member of a group at greater risk for contracting COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified high-risk individuals as those over age 65 or who have chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, serious heart conditions, severe obesity, diabetes, liver disease, chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis, or who are immunocompromised. Employees with mental health conditions such as severe anxiety or PTSD may also be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If you fit into one of these groups, the ADA may require that your employer accommodate you with a reasonable accommodation such as a staggered shift or leave of absence, alternate personal protective equipment, or by being allowed to work from home.
If any of the above applies to you, let your employer know. While employers may not ask intrusive medical questions, your employer will consider whether your desire to work from home is reasonable or if your needs may be met through alternative workplace accommodations.
Whatever decision is reached needs to be tenable for your employer as well for you. One in six Anchorage businesses may not recover from what they’ve already suffered. If you don’t have a special health condition making you more vulnerable than other employees, perhaps you can present your employer with a business case for your continuing remote work. You’ll be in stronger position for doing it if while working from home you maintained pre-COVID productivity levels. If you’ve created work/life balance by not giving your employer a full work day, perhaps a reduced paycheck might work for you as well as your employer.
If you can’t make a good case for working from home, you may need to return to your worksite. If so, perhaps you can find a way to convince your supervisor he doesn’t need to micro-manage you by showing him that you’ve been producing the needed results without his scrutiny. Finally, although returning to the workplace is not what you wanted, you have a job; that makes you much better off than many others.
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