Can I Refuse to Return to Work if My Office Isn’t Enforcing Social Distancing Guidelines?

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Recent world events have many of us reviewing our workspaces with new eyes. If you struggle to work safely due to close confines with other employees, you do have options. However, not every state is equally supportive. Additionally, your industry may make keeping the 6 foot gap much more challenging.

When Work from Home Doesn’t Work

Not every industry lends itself to working from home. However, employers can make other changes to keep employees safer. If your employer offers changes such as shift changes, or splitting up a day into four hour blocks, for example, this may be enough of an adjustment to require you to keep coming in to work.

Once these plans are put in place, some employees may choose to stay with the split schedule. For example, if you and your closest co-workers can lessen your risk by one of you

  • coming in earlier for one person
  • staying later for another employee
  • working from home for part of the day

This hybrid schedule can be emotionally challenging for some employees.

State by State

Different states offer more or less protection for employees. If you feel unsupported in your concerns when requesting social distancing, it could simply be that your employer knows they don’t have to support you per legal requirements.

If your state is not an employee-friendly state, you may have to decide how much of a fight you’re willing to take on. There are places where the best you can do is mask up and do your job until you can find a more supportive employer. Terminating you for masking, insisting on social distancing or requesting the chance to work from home may not be legal anywhere in the country, but your employer can make your life pretty tough if you stick to your guns.

Employer Responsibilities

Your employer may choose to add shields, require masks or tape off areas. Additionally, your employer may need to close communal areas where people can gather unmasked, such as a shared dining area. At no point should you feel compelled to

  • participate in group activities
  • remove your mask for the convenience of others
  • be in the presence of someone who refuses to mask

Again, what’s legal may not matter in terms of social or political pressure. As an employee, you have essential functions and non-essential functions. Avoid the non-essential if it increases your risk, and make sure your essential functions can be done safely. If your work forces you to be in the presence of strangers or requires you to deal with the public and working from home is not an option, you may be in for a fight.

Should you refuse to come into the office, there may be repercussions that last. If you find yourself dealing with a hostile environment. If you have expressed your concerns and gotten pushback from your employer, it may be time to talk to an employee law specialist about your options.

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