Can You Require Your Employees to Return to Work?

In short, yes. Provided your local area is not under a shelter-in-place order, employers can legally require employees to return to in-person work in most situations. That said, the EEOC advises caution to employers hoping to have all employees return sooner rather than later. While federal guidelines may allow employers to require in-person work, particularly if your employees are considered essential workers, the ADA and other protective legislation at the local, state, and federal levels still apply.

Before requiring employees to return to work it is important to understand all legislation that applies to ensure your organization remains compliant. Know whether your workers can do their work from home. In some situations, a worker may be considered essential (such as a grocery store clerk, a nurse, etc.) and cannot perform their work from home. In these situations, employees can be made to come into work in-person where the ADA does not apply. In situations where employees are not essential, you should approach returning to the office carefully.

There are some situations where employees can refuse to return to the office. If they have a physical or mental disability, are pregnant (in many but not all states), are not provided a safe working environment, or belong to a vulnerable population, such as the elderly, chronically ill, or at a high risk of contracting COVID-19 (in many but not all states). It is important to familiarize yourself with local legislation that provides additional guidance on what accommodations should be made for employees. Beyond the ADA, many states have implemented their own legislation, and recommendations can change quickly.

When requiring employees to return to work it is important to ensure that they are returning to a safe and comfortable work environment. Provide adequate PPE (masks, gloves, plexiglass, etc.) and ensure that safe social distancing (6 to 10 feet) can be maintained at all times, provide health screenings, etc. Following the CDC guidelines closely will ensure your employees feel and are safe at work. In addition, it is important to keep an open line of communication. Talk with employees and address concerns; this will also help to ensure that you address any accommodation needs as quickly as possible.

After you have decided to have your employees return to the office, it is best to do so gradually. This allows employees who are thriving in remote work to continue doing so and helps your organization to work out any kinks before you have a full workplace.   Consider surveying your employees to find out who is happy, unhappy, productive, and who is feeling a little lost in remote work. This could help provide the framework for your organization’s return to the office. While you may not plan on having any remote employees in the end, bringing back those who are struggling with remote work first may help your team to succeed as a whole.

No matter what you ultimately decide, it is important to be aware of the quickly changing guidance surrounding COVID-19. Federal, state and local laws can provide some guidance but quickly shift as we learn more about the disease. In addition, be prepared with adequate supplies and social distancing ability as well as policies and procedures surrounding safety as employees return to work.

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