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When employees don’t want to return to work the way it was

By Lynne Curry bio


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?  


The short answer—probably not. The long answer—possibly.

Let’s look at your primary reasons for wanting to continue remote work. Your state’s business closure orders 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 if not all 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 (OSH) 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 (ADA).

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 businesses may not recover from 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.


And meanwhile, back at the office, here are some tips for what employers and managers can do to protect each other:

I’m scared. I don’t feel like my boss or coworkers are taking COVID-19 seriously. The medical professionals say we should be wiping down high-touch places. In our office, I’m the one who does it. So does that make me on the front line? Does my doing all this cleaning let everyone else feel safer so they don’t think they need to do anything? It would be fair if we rotated the cleaning but I can’t count on anyone else doing a good job so I “suck it up, Buttercup.”

My mom works for a large company. When her coworker picked up his son from the airport, the coworker and his family remained at home for fourteen days due to hosting someone who recently traveled, despite the lack of symptoms.

My boss’s son and daughter just got back from a spring break vacation. My boss picked them up from the airport Wednesday. When I asked him why he wasn’t staying home, he said his kids were healthy and social distancing was the protocol. I pressed him about this, saying we all share the same breakroom, copier and conference room, and he told me if I wanted to take leave without pay he’d “try” to hold my job for me. Why do I have to take leave when I haven’t travelled?

My sister is in her late fifties and has poor health and is out of paid time off. Her workplace remains open. Her coworker returned two days ago from a vacation and the plane routed through Seattle. If this other employee won’t stay home for 14 days does my sister risk losing her job if she tries to stay home?

The above three emails came from employees fearing they or their loved ones are on the coronavirus front line at work.

Here are some answers:

Get real, get serious

Few employees can survive without paychecks. Many employers can’t survive providing a continuing stream of paychecks to employees who aren’t working.

We need to realize we’re all in this together and that the actions we take can risk or potentially save others’ lives. Our first thought can’t be just for ourselves; we need to figure out how to have each other’s backs. The employee who doesn’t want to miss work and infects the entire workplace causes everyone else to miss fourteen days of pay or potentially become fatally ill.

What many don’t seem to get is that those with no or mild symptoms may have a body that’s fighting off COVID-19 and can pass the disease on to others. As a pulmonary medicine and critical care physician explains in “A slow burn: Coronavirus symptoms often linger before worsening”1 COVID-19 often initiates slowly. If you work around those who remain frozen in denial, or who are unwilling to sacrifice for the common good, you may have to do more than your share of cleaning just to remain safe.

If your employer keeps your workplace open, you currently need to work or take leave

I’ve received many calls from readers asking if they can refuse to work because they fear becoming infected. Employees may only safely refuse to work if they believe that being at work places them in imminent danger. Section 13(a) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) defines “imminent danger” as “any conditions or practices in any place of employment which are such that a danger exists which can reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately or before the imminence of such danger can be eliminated….” OSHA further defines the “threat of death or serious physical harm,” as a “reasonable expectation that toxic substances or other health hazards are present, and exposure to them will shorten life or cause substantial reduction in physical or mental efficiency.” Conditions in most workplaces don’t rise to this level; however, some employers may allow employees to remain home without negative consequences.

Managers need to step up to the plate.

Managers need to act like leaders. The biggest mistake a manager or coworker can make is to compromise an employee’s or coworker’s safety. The second biggest mistake a manager can make is to let employees know the manager is willing to compromise the employee’s safety for revenue.

Managers need to heed the key Center for Disease Control recommendations. Ensure that all frequently touched surfaces such as copiers, doorknobs and light switches in your workplace are cleaned with household cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants. Enforce social distancing. Immediately send sick employees home.2

If one of your employees self-reports coming into contact with someone with a presumptive positive case of COVID-19, treat the situation as if the suspected case is confirmed and send the employee home.3 If one of your employees has been exposed to the virus and has interacted with coworkers and clients, treat the situation as if the exposed employee has a confirmed case of COVID-19. Send home potentially infected coworkers and communicate the situation to any clients that came into close contact with the employee so that they know of the potential of a suspected case.3

COVID-19 is among us. We need to act.



3 Comprehensive and Updated FAQs for Employers on the COVID-19 Coronavirus.












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