Can Your Boss Make You Go Back to Work?

Even if you don’t have legal protections, you may be able to negotiate with your boss.

(Image credit: Illustration by Vanessa Branchi)

Across the U.S., companies that sent their workers home in March to protect them from the coronavirus pandemic are gradually reopening. Most are implementing a long list of precautions, from requiring workers to wear masks to limiting capacity on elevators. But with coronavirus cases still rising in some parts of the country—and a vaccine months away—some workers are reluctant to go back to the office.

Which raises the question: If you don’t feel safe, can your employer require you to return to work? The answer depends on a number of factors, but your individual circumstances are most important, says Alison Green, founder of the Ask a Manager website and author of Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses and Other Tricky Situations at Work.

If you have a medical condition that puts you at high risk should you get COVID-19 (such as diabetes, heart disease or COPD), you have some protections under the American with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who are disabled. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employees with disabilities that put them at high risk for complications from the pandemic can request telework as a “reasonable accommodation” to reduce their chances of infection.

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That doesn’t mean your employer is required to allow you to work from home, Green says. Your supervisor could suggest an alternative, such as putting you in an isolated part of your office. Your employer can also reject telework if you can’t perform your duties at home—if you’re a waiter at a restaurant, for example. But at the very least, the ADA requires your employer to consider alternatives that will reduce your risk of becoming ill.

Working parents whose kids’ schools remain closed are also facing challenges this fall. Your employer isn’t required to allow you to work from home to take care of your children, Green says. You have a couple of options, although they’re not ideal: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act stimulus package signed into law in March requires employers with fewer than 500 employees to give workers an additional 10 weeks of time off at two-thirds of their regular pay if they need to stay home to care for a child whose school is closed due to the pandemic. If you’re forced to quit to take care of a child (or children) whose school was closed due to the pandemic, you’re eligible for unemployment benefits.

Making your case. If you’re asking to work from home because you have an underlying medical condition, send an e-mail to your boss or human-resources department and put in the subject line “official request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Note in the e-mail that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has specifically said that employees with disabilities that put them at high risk for complications of COVID-19 may request telework as a reasonable accommodation to reduce their chances of infection.

The ADA doesn’t protect you if you want to work from home because someone in your household has an under­lying medical condition, Green says. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask to telework. “Try to negotiate with your employer to see if there’s something you can work out,” she says.

You might be reluctant to return to the office even if you don’t have an underlying medical condition, child care responsibilities or a vulnerable member of your household. A survey by Morning Consult, a market research firm, found that nearly one-third of workers would prefer to work at home until a COVID-19 vaccine is available. (The survey also found that three-fourths of workers would like to continue working from home at least a couple of days a week even after the pandemic is under control.)

If you fall into that category, speak up, Green says. Ideally, get together with other coworkers who share your concerns, she says, because there’s strength in numbers.

If you’ve been working from home for several months, you’ve got a track record you can point to in making your case, Green says. Show your employer what you’ve accomplished while working from home to prove that your productivity won’t suffer. Although many workers now say they’d like to work from home permanently for at least a few days a week, you’ll probably have better luck suggesting a temporary telework arrangement.

Worried workers can take some consolation in the knowledge that many employers, both large and small, are in no hurry to require employees to return to the office. Companies ranging from Twitter to Zillow have announced policies allowing employees to work from home permanently. In a recent e-mail to the 118 employees of Kiwanis International and the Kiwanis Children’s Fund, executive director Stan Soderstrom said working from home would be the global volunteer organization’s primary work arrangement “for the foreseeable future.” In particular, Soderstrom says, employees who believe they or someone in their household is at risk, or need to stay home to care for their children, have been encouraged to continue working from home.

“We have people who have worked for us for more than a decade,” he says. “They’ve demonstrated their loyalty to us, and I’m going to return that same loyalty.”

Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.