Going Back to Work While COVID-19 Is Still Spreading
By: Laura Entis
Many people in the U.S.—including doctors, nurses, bus drivers, and grocery clerks—have not stopped working throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But among the millions of others who have been furloughed or teleworking for a month or more, some are now being asked to return to work.
That’s especially true in states such as Georgia and Texas, which have allowed a wide array of businesses to reopen, from movie theaters to salons to some offices.Sign Up
Multiple federal agencies—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—have issued guidance on how employers can make their workplaces safer for employees. But at the moment, these guidelines are just suggestions.
“You can’t enforce them . . . because it’s completely voluntary,” says Jonathan Karmel, J.D., a union labor lawyer and the author of “Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace.”
Some state and local officials have stepped into this vacuum. In New York,
for example, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order that turns
recommendations from the CDC guidelines, such as developing a regular cleaning and
disinfection plan and maintaining social distancing, into enforceable standards.
In the absence of unified rules, the legal minimum for what you can expect if you return to work depends on your state and jurisdiction.
That said, even in areas where there aren’t COVID-specific regulations in place, employees should feel empowered to ask either the owner of the company or someone in its human resources department, “What steps do you have in place to protect us as the workers?” says Tina Tan, M.D., a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, and a board member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “They have all the right in the world to ask that question.”
George Slover, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports, agrees. “Returning workers need to be absolutely confident that their employer is doing everything it reasonably can to protect them,” he says. “People should know that their health and safety is a top priority.”
Here are five issues to discuss with your employer if you’ve been asked to return to work.
Will Social Distancing Be Practiced?
COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through close person-to-person contact and respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. That’s why social distancing is one of the best measures to limit its spread, says Karen Hoffmann, R.N., the immediate past president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.
Whenever possible, employers should ensure that workers can maintain a
6-foot distance from one another, which could mean physically moving furniture
or desks to separate workstations, operating at a reduced capacity, or
staggering shifts to decrease the number of people who are in the workplace at
While federal guidelines call for social distancing, many state and local officials have gone further, instituting enforceable recommendations. Some of these rules are designed primarily to protect customers, but may reduce the risk of exposure for workers as well. In Rhode Island, for example, grocers must limit the number of customers in the store to 20 percent of their stated fire capacity.
What Other Precautions Will Be in Place?
There is some evidence that in certain situations, a 6-foot distance on its own may not be enough to prevent transmission indoors, Tan says, including if an infected person is breathing heavily, coughing, or sneezing.
The airflow created by fans, air conditioning, and heating units can also carry the virus farther. Physical barriers, such as plastic dividers, are therefore a good supplement to social distancing for protecting employees from coming into contact with the coronavirus. What’s more, they provide a second line of protection that goes beyond simply relying on individual compliance.
In addition to spreading through respiratory droplets, it’s believed that
COVID-19 can be transmitted through contaminated
surfaces. Therefore, it’s important that companies also regularly
disinfect communal areas and surfaces. CDC guidance recommends that
“surfaces frequently touched by multiple people, such as door handles, desks,
phones, light switches, and faucets, should be cleaned and disinfected at least
Ideally, employers “should have someone assigned to wipe down frequently touched surfaces with some type of antiseptic wipe,” Tan says. She advises that cleanings occur in the morning, before everyone comes in, again in the mid-afternoon, and then again before people leave.
Will Protective Equipment Be Provided?
In workplaces—especially hair salons, restaurants, movie theaters, or other businesses where employees regularly interact with customers at close range—personal protective equipment (PPE) is crucial for limiting the spread of the disease.
“Everyone should be wearing a mask at all times,” Hoffmann says. This
includes clients and customers as well as staff. Cloth masks and other nonclinical
face coverings “primarily contain your own droplets so you are not exposing
the person next to you,” Hoffmann says, which is why universal masking in these
situations is important. Since some people are refusing to wear masks, ask your
employer what it will do if a coworker or customer does not wear one.
Hand sanitizer and antiseptic wipes can also help, particularly for workers who are coming into regular contact with communal surfaces or serving customers.
At the federal level, employers aren’t legally required to provide PPE, although a number of states—including New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Michigan—as well as some local jurisdictions, have taken this step. Some states that require this are helping companies buy PPE for their workers, but others are not—especially if there is a limited amount of PPE available, Tan says.
She advises that workers reach out to HR or, if it’s a small business, the
owner, to inquire whether such supplies will be provided. If not, “express your
concerns,” Tan suggests.
If your employer is not providing PPE, plan on bringing in your own mask, hand sanitizer, and antiseptic supplies, if possible. And remember to regularly wash your hands.
What Happens If an Employee Has COVID-19 or Shows Symptoms?
Some companies may choose to screen employees before they enter the
building, a process that might include screening questions—such as asking about
symptoms like chills and fever—or physically taking workers’ temperatures.
Those who are presenting symptoms should be told to stay home, or sent home if
they show up at the office, Tan says. Even when implemented carefully, however,
this process is not foolproof: Research
has shown that people who don’t have symptoms can still spread the virus to
Some professional organizations have issued industry-specific recommendations. Ahead of Georgia’s reopening, for example, the Georgia State Board of Cosmetologists and Barbers released guidelines for salons, advising that owners implement temperature checks and screening questions along with social distancing measures.
If workers fall ill, the CDC recommends they stay home until at least three days have passed since recovery and at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared. For workers who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, the agency advises they remain at home and practice social distancing for 14 days.
Can I Continue Teleworking?
If you’ve been able to work remotely and would like to continue doing so, it’s worth bringing it up with your employer.
If you have a pre-existing condition, such as lung disease, impaired immunity, or many other health issues that increase the risk of severe COVID-19, you should be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), says Peter Blanck, Ph.D., J.D., a lawyer and professor at Syracuse University.
The ADA definition of a disorder is broad, encompassing any “physical or
mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
This includes conditions such as asthma, depression, and anxiety that, along
with other disabilities, are assessed on an individual basis—taking current
circumstances into account. Pregnancy is covered by the Pregnancy
Discrimination Act, while older workers are protected by the Age Discrimination
in Employment Act. All three laws are enforced by the Equal Employment
To deny a teleworking request, your employer would have to show that it’s essential for you come into the office to do your job. “These things are case-by-case determinations,” Blanck says.
He recommends starting the conversation by alerting your employer to your
specific disability, letting them know that it’s covered by the ADA, and
outlining accommodations, such as working remotely, that would allow you to
continue to perform essential functions. “The employer has to come back and
say, ‘no you can’t’, or ‘yes it’s reasonable for you to do that,’” Blanck says.
You may reach a compromise, such as coming into the office two days a week and
working at home the others.
“If they can’t accommodate your request, they have to look for alternatives,” Karmel says. Ultimately, “it’s an interactive process between the employee, the employer, and sometimes, a medical provider.”
If you don’t have a condition that is covered by the ADA and are asked to come into work, your employer should have established a safety plan for protecting you from infection. Failing to do so could open them up to personal injury claims, experts say.
“You have a . . . right to expect that the employment setting is not going to put you in harm’s way,” Blanck says. “There are a lot of things employers are going to have to do to protect their workers and protect themselves from being negligent.”
These are reasonable expectations, says David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and everyone should be taking precautions to keep people safe,” he says. “Companies that carelessly fail to do so should be held accountable for the harm that causes. Otherwise, this will only get worse for everyone.”