What to Do If Work Calls You Back to the Office and You're Not Ready to Go

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Going back to the office? For the many thousands of employees being called back to a physical work space this fall, masks will be must-wear business attire. yuoak/Getty

The office is returning to a location near you this fall—and, no, we're not talking about the employees of Dunder Mifflin. Although only an estimated one in four workers is physically back on the job this summer, that's likely to change soon. In a recent CNBC survey, some 52 percent of companies with a majority of their staff now working remotely said they expect at least half of their employees to return to work in person by the start of September.

After six months of attending Zoom meetings from the comfort of your couch, it will likely feel strange, and a little scary, to be back at your desk, particularly with COVID-19 still posing a major threat to public health. What precautions can you expect your employer to take? Do you have options if you don't feel ready to return? Is there any recourse if your company doesn't have strict safety procedures in place or your co-workers don't follow them?

To answer these questions, Newsweek spoke with medical, legal and workplace experts, who offered insights on everything from how best to protect your health to your legal rights if you believe your company isn't providing a safe environment to work in. Here's their advice.

What will my workplace look like when I return?

Chances are, you won't be back to a regular five-days-a-week, on-site work schedule anytime soon. About 40 percent of employers are bringing back groups of employees or departments in phases, with the most critical teams typically returning first, says Lisa Frydenlund, a knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Another 19 percent will use an alternating return strategy, assigning employees designated days or weeks when they're back in the office, and then having them work remotely the rest of the time.

While you're in the office, you'll probably come into contact with far fewer people than you did in the pre-pandemic days. Three-fourths of companies say they will stagger start, stop and break times for employees and 78 percent will reduce the number of customers permitted inside, according to SHRM.

Your office layout will likely be different too, with desks spread much further apart than before, partitions erected between you and co-workers or customers, and limited or no access to communal spaces like kitchens and break rooms. On the plus side, your workspace will probably be the tidiest it's ever been, with 90 percent of companies saying they have or will increase cleaning efforts, according to a survey by Littler, a labor law firm.

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CLEAN AND TIDY To help ensure worker safety, most companies plan to increase cleaning efforts, regularly wiping down equipment and furniture, particularlyhigh-touch surfaces and public spaces. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Expect your bosses to take a greater interest in your health. Almost all employers will require workers to report COVID-19 symptoms, exposure to the virus or travel, according to SHRM. More than 85 percent will require or are considering requiring employees to wear masks or other personal protective equipment and most of those businesses will foot the bill for the gear. Littler found that six in 10 organizations also plan on conducting employee health scans and testing, most commonly temperature checks and symptom screenings.

Your employer will probably share the details of its safety measures with staff but, if not, by all means ask, either via an email to your manager or in a public forum like an all-hands meeting so your co-workers can hear the answers as well, says Lauren McGoodwin, CEO of Career Contessa. Among the critical questions to ask: How will the staff be alerted if a co-worker has the virus, and how will the company act to limit the spread if that happens, says Sandra Kesh, an infectious disease expert with Westmed Medical Group in Purchase, New York.

What if I don't feel comfortable returning to the office?

You may be reluctant to raise concerns, worried about looking uncooperative when more than 30 million Americans are out of work. The key to successfully broaching the subject, says Jaime Klein, CEO of Inspire Human Resources, is to be specific about the reason you're uncomfortable and come to the discussion with solutions that address your employer's needs and the company's reasons for bringing staffers back on-site.

Now isn't the time to cling to privacy. If you or someone you live with has a medical condition that puts you at higher risk, disclose it; likewise, if you're, say, caring for an elderly parent at home that would make it difficult to come to the office. "Before [the pandemic], many people would have paused at bringing up such personal issues, but this is a time when we have to become unphotoshopped and speak authentically about our current home situation," says Klein.

Think about why your employer wants staff back in the office—for instance, to boost productivity or collaboration or because there are certain tasks that can't be performed remotely. "Make your ask around what's good for them, share how you'll address their concerns," says McGoodwin. "Maybe you agree to check in more frequently or can show you've actually been more productive since working remotely."

Also have ideas ready about how you can feel safer at work, instead of only offering remote work as a solution. Maybe you can change your schedule so you work when there are fewer people in the office or on mass transit? Or move from an open area desk to an office with a closed door? "Most bosses will appreciate that you've thought of solutions that work for both [of you]," says McGoodwin.

What if your boss says no? Unless you have a disability that's recognized by law, you will need to return to the office or risk repercussions. Legally, a general fear of catching COVID-19 is not grounds to force your company to accommodate your request for alternate arrangements.

Even if you do have a disability, the protection is not absolute, but rather depends on various factors, including whether the job can be done from home or whether the employer can make the workplace safer through other reasonable accommodations, says labor and employment attorney Ivo Becica, a partner at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel law firm.

"Some jobs, like restaurant and hospitality positions, can't be performed from home and are inherently risky, no matter how conscientious the employer is," Becica says. "The law doesn't require employers to fundamentally alter an employee's job to accommodate a disability."

If I can't return to my workplace because of child care issues, what should I do?

The challenges facing working parents with young children at home aren't getting any easier as schools and many day care facilities, despite public pressure to reopen, continue to limit in-person attendance until COVID-19 is under control. And as hard as they may try, it's affecting their work: According to a new Care.com survey, two-thirds of working parents say juggling child care and their jobs during the pandemic has caused their productivity to suffer—and that was before the added stress of being asked to return to work in person.

Unfortunately, you're largely on your own when it comes to solutions. Most employers don't have a set policy in place, instead handling pandemic child care accommodation requests on a case-by-case basis, says SHRM.

If your employer isn't willing to work with you and you haven't already used up the benefit, you may be able to get paid time off with job protection under the federal pandemic relief law. Through the end of the year, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides parents who can't work because their child's school or day care provider is closed with two weeks of sick leave and up to another 10 weeks of expanded family leave at two-thirds of pay. A major caveat: The legislation only applies to certain public employers and private employers with fewer than 500 employees; businesses with fewer than 50 employees may also be exempt if providing the leave would "jeopardize the viability of the business."

Some states have paid sick leave laws that also cover child care, but many cap time off at 40 hours. After that time is used up, employers can generally require employees to return to work, says Becica.

What should I do if I return to the office and find the working environment unsafe?

If certain practices, like non-socially distanced meetings, make you uncomfortable, speak to your HR leader or manager about the specific issue.

Be diplomatic. Frame the conversation as being about a desire to make the entire team feel safe and prevent anyone from getting sick, which would derail the company's business goal, says Klein. Suggest solutions, like wearing masks in meetings or opening all windows while the meeting is in progress or moving to a larger room where social distancing can happen.

Still it takes a bold employee to speak up this way, especially when unemployment is so high and many would be delighted to fill your position. So talk with colleagues first to see if they feel the same way—and might back up your proposed solutions.

Practically, though, your options aren't great if your company declines to act.

By law, employers are required to provide a safe workplace and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), along with the CDC, has issued pandemic-specific guidelines for companies to follow in order to protect employees. If you believe your company is not complying, you can file a complaint with OSHA. But, according to the National Employment Law Project, the rules are voluntary and OSHA has already stated that it will not be enforcing them.

Other options: Unionized workers can talk to their local representative. Not in a union? Some 14 states have have expanded worker protections and adopted new rules to regulate businesses during the pandemic. Virginia, for instance, has mandates for employers concerning personal protective equipment, sanitation and social distancing. If yours is among the states with such rules, you might have a better shot filing a complaint with your state regulatory agency.

But employment lawyers warn that complaints take a long time to resolve and are tough to win, especially if your company has some safety measures in place, such as social distancing and requiring or providing masks. And while there are rules on the books that are supposed to protect complainers from blowback on the job, real life doesn't always work out that way.

As Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of the nonprofit Workplace Fairness, puts it: "You can have a legal claim but still be fired and out of a job."

What should I do if my co-worker is not following the COVID-19 safety rules?

If your co-worker forgot to wipe down the coffee machine after using it one time, maybe gently remind him or her of the company's new cleaning policy or let it go. But if a colleague continues to repeatedly disregard safety procedures, you may want to alert your manager or HR.

Hopefully, the manager or another member of the company's leadership will then speak with the employee, which will curb the risky behavior, keeping your name out it. But if you find that the individual continues to flout the safety rules or that your supervisor was unresponsive in dealing with the issue, it may be time to escalate your concerns.

"Someone in authority at the company approved those safety rules and wants them enforced," says University of Oregon law professor Elizabeth Tippett. "If your boss isn't responsive, speak to the HR office or the risk management office or your boss's boss."

If I refuse to come into the office because I'm worried about catching COVID-19 and my employer views this as quitting, can I collect unemployment?

Probably not. While unemployment regulations vary from state to state, generally you cannot quit your job and claim benefits, even if you left because you're afraid you might catch COVID-19 at work, says Ndjatou.

To pursue a claim, you would need to cite unsafe working conditions as "good cause" for your departure. Then the state unemployment agency would investigate, checking, for example, to see if you informed your employer of your safety concerns and whether the company then investigated or addressed the issues raised. Having documentation of such exchanges would help your cause.
Even if the matter is eventually resolved in your favor—a very big if—you likely won't receive any aid in the meantime. And, with so many unemployment claims being filed these days, you could have a lengthy wait.

What can I personally do to stay safe when I return to work?

The usual precautions apply. Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth whenever you are within six feet of colleagues, customers and clients; avoid sharing common items, like scissors or staplers, with co-workers; and if you do need to use a shared space or piece of equipment, wash your hands thoroughly immediately after. "Assume you've been exposed to the coronavirus after touching any common surface," says Kesh.

As for socializing with coworkers, that too will need to change. While you don't have to eat alone at your desk every day, it is important to maintain six feet of social distance, says Kesh. If your employer doesn't have a break room or cafeteria large enough to permit this, try moving lunch outdoors. Drinks after work are off limits too, unless the watering hole is outside.

There will be plenty of time to socialize with work friends unfettered once the pandemic is over. In the meantime, your top job is to stay healthy, and help keep your colleagues safe as well, so you are all around to enjoy those future happy hours.

Newsweek contributor Kerri Anne Renzulli is a financial journalist based in London. She has also worked for CNBC, Financial Planning and Money.