As Texas and the U.S. emerges from its COVID-19 lockdown, many people who have been working from their coffee tables are being called back to the office. As of June, offices in Texas are allowed to reopen as long as they implement minimum standard health protocols outlined by Texas Department of State Health Services.

Make no mistake, COVID-19 is still killing people — the nation’s death toll stands at more than 119,000 — and that is making some workers reluctant to go back to the office.

Oftentimes out of necessity, employers are putting an end to working from home and requiring employees to return. Some employees will indeed balk due to health concerns, with their bosses potentially cutting hours or putting them on a leave of absence. The question we’ve heard at GroupOne Background Screening is if employers are legally allowed to do this?

Simply put, yes, and it might also be legal to fire an employee if they refuse to return. As usual, there are caveats galore.

GroupOne has put together a list of common employment questions as we adjust to our society’s “new normal.”

What if employees are concerned about returning to work?
If you are requiring employees to return to the office and they are worried about the possibility of catching COVID-19, provide a list of the safety measures you are implementing – and you had better implement quite a few! Include detailed descriptions of the precautions in place, the protective equipment in place, what sanitary activities are expected, the social distancing required and how employee contact will be limited.

What if employees complain about your precautions?
The most important step is to communicate with your staff. Have regular meetings so employees can voice their concerns. Employees have a right under the federal labor law to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection. If employees request improvements to the safety protections in place and the employer refuses, they would be protected under the labor law if they refuse to return to the office.

What if an employee has a health condition?
If an employee’s health condition is categorized as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act, you must provide a reasonable accommodation — that is, changes in hours, rules or other workplace conditions that enable the employee to fulfill their job functions as long as they don’t present an undue hardship to the business. Sometimes, the simplest and most effective accommodation is to allow them to continue to work from home. The federal Families First Coronavirus Act provides for some weeks of paid sick time for certain employees — including those who can’t work because a healthcare provider has advised them to self-quarantine for COVID-19-reasons — though exclusions apply.

What about older workers?
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects workers older than 40 from discrimination; for example, employers can’t block them from returning to the workplace because of their age. But employers are not required to make special accommodations for them due to COVID-19.

What about employees caring for family members with COVID-19 or a child whose school is closed?
Flexibility and common sense are important here, though employees might be eligible for paid family leave benefits through the state or under the federal Families First Coronavirus Act.

During these trying times, resilience, patience and communication will always be key when working through the many issues your company and your employees may face. For questions, please do not hesitate to contact us at GroupOne.

The information and opinions expressed in this blog are for educational purposes only and are based on current practice, industry related knowledge and business expertise. The information provided shall not be construed as legal advice, express or implied.

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