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Running Scared: Addressing Employee Fears about Returning to Work During the Pandemic

By Sherri Bennett, SPHR & SHRM-CP on Jun 02, 2020
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Running Scared

First, the coronavirus pandemic shuttered “non-essential” businesses and drove employees home to work. Now, many of those same employees are trepidatious about returning to their traditional worksites as the economy reopens.


If employees express reluctance to resume working on site because they’re afraid it puts them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, employers can and should address and try to alleviate their concerns. Listening to and taking your employees’ fears seriously – as well as following best practices and applicable employment laws – will help your workforce feel valued and reduce your company’s legal exposure.

Sincere regard for employee fears

Employees have faced all sorts of stresses during the quarantine period. They already may be feeling more anxious than usual, and the thought of returning to the workplace may add one more layer to their fears. As an employer, the best thing you can do is to talk to employees who are expressing these concerns, learn why they’re scared and explore mutually agreeable solutions.

Some employees may be worried about returning to the workplace because they have preexisting conditions that could make them more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19. Some – especially those caring for older people – may be afraid of bringing the virus home to family members. Others may have anxieties or mental disorders that intensify their fear of being infected.

how to return to business as usual amid covid 19

Unless they have serious health conditions, these employees probably won’t qualify for time off under the Family Medical Leave Act, but you may be able to accommodate them in other ways, including allowing them to continue working from home. If they have received recommendations from their health care providers, consider that information in any decision you make, as well.

You also may be able to help employees feel more comfortable about returning to your workplace by ensuring them that the company intends to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidance on preparing workplaces for COVID-19. Let employees know about the specific protective measures your worksite is taking.

Employee rights 

Under most circumstances, employees cannot legally refuse to work based on a generalized fear of COVID-19. One exception is if an employee has a related covered disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as generalized anxiety disorder – a symptom of which could be a fear of COVID-19.

If, after you explain the workplace protocols in place to reduce the risk of contracting the virus, these employees still are afraid to return to work, the ADA requires you to provide reasonable accommodations that do not create undue hardships to your business. To balance an employee’s ADA rights while mitigating long-term business disruption, you can place time limits on any accommodations you make, then reassess and possibly modify the situation at a later date.

Besides OSHA and ADA considerations, some local, state and federal laws provide additional employee rights in the form of paid leave. (Kansas and Missouri are not among the states with such laws, however.) Some states, for example, require employers with 50 or more employees to provide accrued paid leave without an employee having a specific reason to obtain it. At the federal level, employees may be entitled to leave under the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act, especially if “the employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19.”

If employees are apprehensive about returning to work while the country is still in the pandemic’s grip, do what you can to ease their fears. Follow all federal, state and local guidance around workplace safety during the outbreak. Clearly communicate the measures you are taking to reduce COVID-19 exposure risk, and then assess whether the employees’ fears are covered by the ADA, OSHA, FFRCA or other paid leave laws. Business owners who want to undertake this complicated analysis should consult Axcet HR Solutions and, possibly, employment law counsel before taking any actions that could invite legal claims against them.

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