Home Work in the COVID-19 Era

Home Work in the COVID-19 Era

Businesses have reopened and employees are returning to work. But not all employees are ready to return.  For months, many employees had been doing something they never imagined they’d be allowed to do – work from home.

Some industries have long embraced telecommuting for employees – telecommunications companies, tech companies, even law firms. COVID-19 convinced even the last-to-join the bandwagon companies that the only way to survive was to allow employees to work from home.

And now they’re being asked to return.

Some employees can’t return.  They don’t have childcare. A medically fragile family member lives with them. A paralyzing fear of in-person interactions with colleagues from whom they may or may not contract the virus. 

With 3 months of productive at-home Zoom meetings, employers can no longer claim that working from home is impossible. So what happens when an employee asks to continue remote work after reopening?

First, consider business need.

  • Do your employees really need to be in the office to get their work done? Do they interact with customers in person? Do they have the equipment and tools to perform their work at home?
  • Are there added costs associated with remote work? Or, does it actually save the company money?
  • Has remote work improved or hurt productivity? 
  • Has remote work had a positive impact on employee morale? 
  • Do you have less absenteeism and better engagement? Or, were employees more engaged working in the office?
  • Has remote work had any impact on collaboration and innovation?

Next, weigh in your obligation as an employer to provide a safe workplace – even during a global pandemic.

  • Can you maintain social distancing with all employees in the office? Do you need to stagger work schedules to have enough distance between workspaces? Will employees congregate regardless of your COVID rules?
  • Can you establish protocols and procedures to help ensure employee safety?
  • Are you able to maintain an appropriate level of cleaning and disinfecting of common areas, surfaces and equipment?
  • Do you have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for customers and employees?
  • Are you able to implement some or all of the federal government’s OSHA Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19?
  • Will you be able to keep up with guidance from OSHA and other governing bodies as it continues to evolve and change?
  • Can you avoid employment-related legal claims that may be associated with a return to the office?

Then, consider the business realities of remote work.

  • How can you adequately supervise employees?  Are your managers prepared to do regular, visual (videoconferencing) check-ins and are they able to manage with accountability even though their employees are working offsite?
  • How can you ensure compliance with wage and hour rules for non-exempt employees?
  • How will you enforce company policies?
  • Do your employees have dedicated space at home that is (mostly) free from distraction?
  • Do you have remote work or telecommuting agreements with your employees that outline the expectations and parameters of remote work? For example, do your remote work agreements specify the duration of the arrangement and make clear that remote work can end at any time? Do they specify who will provide the equipment, who pays for office supplies, whether you will reimburse for use of personal equipment like a cell phone or Wi-Fi, and whether you will pay a stipend for home office use? 

Finally, consider the unique circumstances of your employees.

  • Is remote work necessary to accommodate an employee whose existing disability puts them at higher risk if they are infected? 
  • Is remote work necessary to accommodate an employee with existing mental illness like anxiety or depression exacerbated by the pandemic? For more on this, check out The EEOC’s COVID-19 Q&A.
  • Do school and summer camp closures prevent employees from coming into the office?
  • Were childcare issues the reason an employee requested emergency paid sick leave or paid family leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, if that law applies to your company?  If so, could a remote work option make a leave of absence unnecessary?
  • Are there any other unique circumstances that make remote work a good option for certain employees?

We understand that navigating these issues is challenging. Balancing business need with compliance with employment laws and managing legal risk can feel like a full-time job. Bullock Legal is here to help with all of your return-to-work legal issues.

Author Photo

Jennifer Bullock

Jennifer is not your traditional lawyer. She is an innovative and practical problem solver with a track record for winning cases and resolving even the most contentious matters. From negotiating executive employment contracts and successfully arguing before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, to serving as lead trial counsel in multimillion-dollar litigation between competitors, Jennifer brings a personal approach to working with each of her clients.

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