Return to the office mandates


When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency in March, most lawmakers and employers took extra precautions. Workplaces were shut down and employees were asked to work from home. 


Nine months later, more than 180,000 American deaths have been tied to the novel coronavirus and the economy is still struggling. Employers want to reopen, but cases are still increasing. If an employer asked you to return to work today, would you have to comply? 


Can employees refuse to return to work due to COVID-19?

A recent survey by consulting firm Korn Ferry revealed that half of professionals in the U.S. are scared to go back to work due to the pandemic, even with CDC-recommended precautions in place. 32% stated that it is unlikely they will go back to the office when it reopens.


With so many employees hesitating — and employers anxious to get their workers back in the office — there are obvious conflicts. Typically, your employer can force you to come to work if you’re keeping your job. Employees in certain situations, however, may be protected.


If you have an employment contract

Most states are at-will states, meaning an employer can terminate your relationship at any time as long as it doesn’t violate existing laws. If you are protected by an employment contract, however, you may be able to refuse to return to a physical office depending on the terms. 


If you are an essential employee

Essential employees can’t refuse to return to work unless they are sick, have been exposed, or are covered by other laws such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Each state defines who does and does not qualify as an essential worker.


If you’ve been sick or exposed

If you have a positive COVID-19 test, symptoms, or know you’ve been exposed, you shouldn’t return to work. Your employer will likely ask to see a medical release before you can come back. 


If you are in a high-risk group

If you have a qualifying disability under the ADA, you may be able to continue working remotely or remain off work. You may also be eligible for 12 weeks of leave under FMLA if you have worked long enough to receive the benefits and have a serious health condition. 


If you are caring for someone affected by COVID-19

You may be entitled to expanded leave from work under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) if your child’s school or care facility is closed due to COVID-19. This law also provides for paid leave if you are caring for someone who is suffering from COVID-19. 


If you are scared to return to work

If you’re simply scared to return to the office, you may not be entitled to any consideration by your employer. Further, you won’t be able to collect unemployment if you refuse to accept work when it is made available. 


You may or may not lose your job

If you fall under one of the protected categories listed, an employer doesn’t have to pay you. You may be entitled to some benefits while out of work, but this will vary based on your situation. 


An employer may have the right to replace you temporarily or permanently to continue business operations. If you believe that your employer is violating your rights, you should speak with an experienced employment law attorney right away.