Businesses are gearing up to welcome their employees back to the office as daily Covid-19 cases decline, but what if employees refuse to return to work? According to a survey by Envoy in March, 66% of employees say they fear for their health and safety if they have to return to the office, while nearly 48% of people say they would prefer a hybrid schedule in which they can continue to work from home a few days a week. Interestingly, it is not those with higher risk factors who most wish to continue working from home. It’s younger people—Gen Z workers who say that they want to continue being virtual.
Over the past year, the pandemic has sparked a conversation between employers and employees about conventional work culture. Such as, when is it justified for employees to refuse going back to work? Do employers have the right to force their employees despite the imminent threat of Covid-19?
Employees’ vs employers right
In the circumstances where employers find it difficult to discuss or navigate a conversation about returning to work, it would be easier to consult directly with each individual about their returning conditions. In the meanwhile, HR leaders could also help with conducting surveys on how viable it is for workers to return to the office. If the situation allows and employers are confident they could ensure their workers’ safety, it is totally warranted, on the employers’ part, to argue back and try convincing their workers to return to the office.
Outrightly forcing employees to return without so much care about the reason behind their refusal can backfire in the long run because it will decrease staff morale and retention rates. Before taking action, employers must be advised on employees’ rights to refuse going back to work under the following conditions:
Rob Wilson, President of Employco USA said to Government Technology, “Even with the vaccines and other Covid safety measures in place, the reality is that many WFH employees have simply become accustomed to the lifestyle and don’t want to return to long commutes, business attire, and other obligations that come with working in person.”
It is even more challenging to force those who have experienced mental breakdown due to Covid-19, added Brian McGinnis, an attorney with Fox Rothschild. Employers must find a balance between employees’ legal rights and understandable health concerns with the organization’s business needs. Addressing employees’ concerns should be the top priority because you want them to go back to work willingly while avoiding unnecessary escalation.
Employment Lawyer Matt Gingell also added that employers have a general duty to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of all of their employees. On the other hand, employees must provide reasonable reasons why they think employers do not comply with the new workplace health protocol and why they cannot return to work. That being said, employees cannot refuse to attend work without a valid reason in which case a disciplinary action is warranted.
Finally, it is vital for employers and HR leaders to openly communicate the company’s safety measures for returning protocols. If employees are still nervous about returning, it is employers’ responsibility to provide them with convincing arguments and data to ensure their safety at work. That way, employees can rest assured when coming back to their cubicles.