Q: We’re getting enormous pushback from our employees to an email we sent out last week stating that employees need to return to the workplace. At the same time, our organization, which is set up to serve customers, can’t survive if we let all the employees who want to work from home do so. It’s not fair to our customers or the employees who show up at work.
Further, when I call those who allegedly work full time but at home during the workday, they often let slip the fact that they’re not working. I’ve been told, “let me turn down the TV” or “sorry I didn’t answer right away, I was out in the garden.”
Those who want to work from home insist they’re afraid they’ll catch COVID if they return to our worksite. I’ve tried to address those concerns. We have safety protocols in place. We maintain tight limits on the number of customers allowed to enter our facility and screen them before they enter. To date, no employee has contracted COVID.
One employee, who claims to be especially scared, just submitted a 15-day leave request, explaining she’s flying to an East Coast city and then joining a cruise. I call BS. She plans to travel on a plane and cruise ship, but is afraid she’ll contract COVID at work? How do I handle this?
A: The Society for Human Resource Management’s research documents that 52 percent of 1,000 U.S. employees would choose to permanently work from home on a full-time basis if provided that option.
Why they don’t want to come back
Employees have genuine COVID-19 concerns, given the number of unvaccinated individuals, those who regularly let their masks slip below their nose, and the variants now spreading across the country.
Other employees don’t want to give up the freedom they’ve experienced working from home. Still others, after a year of being stretched thin and unable to balance child and workplace demands, have decided work isn’t as important as they viewed it pre-COVID.
Some of the above employees use COVID-related fears as an excuse, shielding them from an employer asking them to return to the worksite.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act protects employees who refuse to work if they reasonably believe fear that working would place them in imminent danger. For an employee to prove this to a regulatory body or jury, the employee needs to prove s/he has a specific fear of infection, and not a generalized fear of contracting COVID-19.
The Americans with Disabilities Act protects employees who have an underlying medical condition that places them at greater risk for contracting COVID-19. Employers need to accommodate these employees with remote work or changes to the work environment to reduce contact with others, such as using Plexiglas separators or other barriers between workstations.
If a health care provider has advised an employee to self-quarantine because of high vulnerability to COVID-19, that employee may be eligible for telework or paid or unpaid sick leave.
Employers are allowed to state, “we’re ending work from home on ‘x’ date, unless an employee has an approved exemption.” Given the morale consequences, you’ll want to make a case for why you’re requiring a return to the workplace, and how you’ll protect your employees’ safety.
Ask each employee reluctant to return to outline her/her specific concerns. Listen. Then ask yourself if you’ve effectively addressed those concerns for this and other employees. If the employee identifies additional steps you need to take, such as better ventilation, capacity limits, increased sanitation, Plexiglas shields, or screening everyone entering your facility for COVID-19, take them.
Your case for requiring the bulk of employees to return includes that your organization serves customers, productivity has dropped, and you want to ensure fairness to the employees willing to return. A return to the workplace allows better collaboration among employees, easier access to equipment, files and supplies, and a closer connection between managers, employees and coworkers, all of which drive employee productivity and morale.
As you chart your organization’s path forward, remember that we’re still in a global pandemic, employee fears are legitimate, and employers need to take them seriously. Additionally, many employees want or need flexible work arrangements, and working parents can’t easily return to the office when schools remain closed.
You’ve called BS on your traveler and you may be right. Can you lawfully fire an employee who refuses to return to work? If you’ve explored your employee’s reasons and have deemed them invalid, continued refusal to return may be a misconduct issue meriting termination or furlough. You may want to check with an attorney first to ensure you’re not overlooking any of your employee’s legal rights.