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What to Do When Employees Fear Returning to Work Due to COVID-19

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As more states lift stay-at-home orders and businesses start to reopen,  the fear of returning to work increases among some employees. A study by Mercer revealed that out of 735 U.S. employers more than 45 percent said they are already struggling with workers who are reluctant to return to work because of fear of contracting the virus. Employers will face new challenges and they will have to respond to these challenges in a way that makes their employees feel safe and appreciated. As an employer, what can you do if an employee tells you they feel scared about coming into work because of COVID-19? Here are some tips to help you.

Know Employees’ Legal Rights

It is important to point out that fear of contracting Covid-19 is not a legal reason to refuse to come to work if the company is lawfully permitted to be open. However, there are exceptions for employees who are at higher risk or those who are concerned about an existing health condition or disability that might put them at higher risk.

OSHA: According to OSHA, employees can refuse to work if they believe working conditions are unsafe or unhealthy. If this is the case, they should address their concerns with their employer. If their employer refuses to listen or nothing is done to fix the issue, then the employee can file a complaint with OSHA, as all employers are required to provide a safe work environment. An employee’s right to refuse to work is protected if all of the following conditions are met:

  • The employee has asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so

  • The employee refused to work in "good faith." This means that the employee must genuinely believe that an imminent danger exists

  • A reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury

  • There isn't enough time, due to the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection

When it relates to COVID-19, the employee can refuse to come to work if the employee “has a specific fear of infection that is based on fact—not just a generalized fear of contracting COVID-19 infection in the workplace and if the employer cannot address the employee's specific fear in a manner designed to ensure a safe working environment,” according to The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

EEOC and ADA: The EEOC enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, including the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). This includes the requirement for reasonable accommodation and non-discrimination based on disability. If an employee requests altered worksite arrangements, remote work, or time off due to underlying health conditions that may put them at a higher risk of contracting the virus, employers should accommodate.

During the H1N1  outbreak in 2009, the EEOC created a guide to help companies implement strategies to navigate a pandemic. They have updated this guide in response to COVID-19  and the new 2020 information appears in bold, you can find the guide here.

FFCRA: The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) applies to employers with fewer than 500 employees, and it states that if an employee is instructed to self-quarantine by a healthcare provider, the employee may be eligible for paid sick leave. However, it is important to know that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued temporary regulations for the FFCRA. These regulations state that employees must give notice to their employers and must provide supporting documentation for requests for paid sick leave and emergency family and medical leave.

Have a Plan & Communicate

Before having employees come back to work, it is important for companies to have a plan and communicate it to their staff. Will you require employees to wear masks? How often is the workplace being disinfected? How will social distancing be enforced? These are some of the questions that employees might have, and those should be addressed before having staff come back to the workplace. Did you know that only  39% of U.S. employees strongly agree that their employer has communicated a clear plan of action in response to COVID-19? Make sure that your company presents a plan and that all employees are aware of it. If after this plan is communicated an employee reaches out and expresses they still do not feel safe coming back to the workplace, it is important to be sensitive, compassionate, and willing to listen. If after addressing the employee’s worries the employee continues to refuse to work, it may be considered job abandonment, and under emergency unemployment rules, the employee may be eligible for unemployment benefits. If this is ever the case at your company, make sure to document any conversations and measures taken, including confirmation of the resignation after all options have been exhausted.

Be Flexible

A lot of companies have already been flexible by allowing employees to work from home during this pandemic, some even had a remote option for employees before the stay-at-home orders. COVID-19 has created an opportunity for employers to examine their policies and see if they can incorporate flexibility overall. Although certain jobs require employees to be physically present, there are other ways companies can be flexible. Allowing employees to have a flexible work schedule is one of the ways you can incorporate flexibility into your company. A recent survey revealed that 76% of workers would be more willing to stay with their current employer if they could work flexible hours, which means flexibility is a great way to retain top talent! You can read more about the importance of flexibility in the workplace here.

Depending on the industry you are in, flexibility can look different from other companies. Flexibility in schedules, remote work options, and even dress codes can retain your talent and improve workplace culture, and therefore increase performance.

If you are planning on reopening your business, or have employees come back to the office if they were working from home, then ensure you know the employee’s rights, that you have a plan of action and have communicated it to your employees, and that you incorporate flexibility into your policies if you haven’t done so already. If you have furloughed employees and would like to rehire them, Dominion’s Onboarding can help you! The “Rehire with Onboarding” function allows former employees to easily come back into your organization, update their information, complete any legally required forms, and review any new business policies. What’s better, our Onboarding integrates seamlessly with Payroll, which eliminates dual entry and ensures accuracy. To learn more about how Dominion’s Onboarding can help your company, request a free demo below!


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