Small business owners reopening in the new normal need employees just as much as they need customers. This can pose a challenge for business owners whose storefronts are open to the public — employees with lingering concerns about the virus may be reluctant to return to work in an enclosed area with a high volume of foot traffic such as in a restaurant or a retail store. Nonetheless, if business owners are going to regain lost revenue, they’ll need the staff to do it, creating the potential for conflict with employees who are scared to return.
In general, employers can fire staff who refuse to come back to work as it constitutes a resignation, so workers' anxiety about COVID-19 will probably not be enough for them to stay home and be legally entitled to keep their jobs, according to an article by Time magazine. However, some states have brought in additions to the rules specifically for the crisis, so business owners should be aware of any extra employee protections that have been put into place.
If you’re a business owner with employees who may be afraid to return to work, take the time to understand your rights and responsibilities as a business owner. This may provide you with the best first step you need to take in resolving any staffing issues that arise from concerned employees.
A Safe Workspace
The Occupational Safety and Health Act grants employees the right to refuse to return to work if they think the workplace could a pose danger to them. It is your responsibility to make sure the work environment is free from hazards that could cause serious harm. You should follow federal guidance on how to make your work environment safe and prevent the spread of the virus.
If an employee does not have symptoms and does not believe they have been exposed to the virus, but is suffering anxiety about catching it, it may help to accommodate their requests as far as you can. Consider allowing employees to use sick leave, paid time off, or ask them to work remotely if possible.
What is your company policy on treatment of workers who have a vulnerable family member they are trying to shield, or children who are not yet able to go to back to school? When staff don’t want to come back to work for family reasons, could you afford to be flexible without giving preferential treatment?
Consider taking the advice of an employment lawyer if you are unsure how to handle things correctly when staff don’t want to return to work.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act allows workers with COVID symptoms to claim two weeks (up to 80 hours) of sick leave on full pay, during which they can’t be forced to come in to work. They can claim two weeks on two-thirds of their regular pay if they have to take care of someone who is quarantined, and an additional 10 weeks of expanded family and medical leave at two-thirds pay if caring for a child whose childcare setting or school is closed. These rules apply to companies with 50 to 500 employees. Small businesses with fewer than 50 staff may not have to offer this longer-term leave for childcare reasons if they can show it would threaten the viability of the business.
Consider offering staff unpaid leave beyond the government-mandated period, and your employee could then consider themselves voluntarily furloughed. They should be aware, however, that in many states this will mean they don’t qualify for unemployment benefits because they have turned down available work. This applies equally if they decide to leave permanently. According to the Department of Labor, “Voluntarily deciding to quit your job out of a general concern about exposure to COVID-19 does not make you eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.”
Staff With Disabilities
Bear in mind also that you have to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees under the Americans With Disabilities Act, as some conditions such as diabetes and lung conditions can make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Where you can’t make the work environment safe enough for these staff, they may be entitled to two weeks of Emergency Paid Sick Leave, according to the American Diabetes Association. You must also adhere to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act when dealing with pregnant employees. Make allowances here and offer longer periods of leave if you can.
Consider taking the advice of an employment lawyer if you are unsure how to handle things correctly when staff don’t want to return to work. Where in the past you might have jumped straight to disciplinary procedures, in this situation it could leave you open to future legal action. Your workers will remember how you treated them in a crisis, and your company’s reputation could suffer if you don’t handle things sensitively. That’s why, in the era of COVID-19, forbearance and flexibility are in the interests of you as an employer, as well as your staff.
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