For employers and employees alike, navigating a global public health crisis is unfamiliar territory. These are uncertain times, and many workers have unanswered questions regarding their safety and their rights in the workplace. Here are some things your employer can and can’t make you do.
Do you have the right to work from home?
Generally speaking, employers don’t have an obligation to permit remote work – especially if your local government deems your role as essential. For example, if you work at a grocery store, you likely can’t do any meaningful work from home. However, if you do have a job you can perform virtually, there are some exceptions.
If there is a quarantine order in place, an employer has more of a burden to allow remote work. If an employee qualifies under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), working remotely may be necessary to accommodate a disability. For example, if you suffer from severe anxiety and working from your office exacerbates your condition, you can ask to work from home as a reasonable accommodation under ADA.
Do you have to work from home if your boss insists?
It is within the right of employers to enforce working remotely so long as they are not discriminatory with their policies. For example, asking only senior employees to work from home is a form of ageism, even if the employer’s intentions were well-meaning. However, it is okay to ask employees to work from home if they display symptoms or have recently been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
If you work in close contact with customers, do you have to perform your job?
Under federal law, employees are protected from employers’ retaliation if they refuse to do what they consider an unsafe work assignment. However, it usually requires that most reasonable employees in the same position would also deem the duty unsafe. For example, if your employer provides the proper training and safety equipment necessary to protect against COVID-19, it may not be reasonable to refuse to do your job.
Can your employer force you to return to work if you have an underlying health condition?
Federal guidelines for reopening businesses include special accommodations for the vulnerable and elderly, encouraging to shelter-in-place until at least the third phase of the guidelines. However, these guidelines are not enforceable orders. For example, if you have asthma, your boss can still ask you to return to work. However, if you have a disability under ADA, you do have more protections.