Question: As businesses begin to reopen, my employees are asking questions regarding their return to work.  What should I anticipate?

Answer: Naturally, as employees begin to return to their workplaces after weeks of sheltering in place under COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, they will have questions. When answering employee questions, be clear and consistent, but also recognize that you will need to remain flexible as guidance changes and we learn more about the coronavirus.  These are some of the common questions employees may ask:

1. Can I refuse to return to work?

Generally, employers have the right to require employees to return to work if the employer is permitted to return employees to the worksite, and the employer has taken the safety steps currently required by state and federal law.  If an employee who has been working remotely refuses to return, it is important to find out why because the employee may be eligible for Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”) leave or other medical or family care leave. Depending on the employee’s reasons for refusing to return, you may decide to allow the employee to continue to work remotely for another few weeks.

If an individual who was laid off refuses an employer’s offer to return to work, the individual is not entitled to a leave of absence because the individual is no longer your employee.  According to the Employment Development Department, individuals who refuse to accept work will normally be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits unless their refusal is legally protected.  In all cases, it is important to communicate with employees and try to handle these situations with care and compassion.

2. How will my employer keep me safe from contracting the virus?

All employers are required to take steps to protect their employees from exposure to COVID-19, including performing a risk assessment and instituting a protection plan, and training employees on limiting the spread of the disease and how to perform self- screening.  All employers must implement control measures, screening, disinfectant protocols, and physical distancing guidelines. Additional steps vary by industry, and industry specific guidance can be found at the following link: Communication and enforcement of your company’s plan is critical in assuring employees that you have taken steps to ensure their safety according to current guidelines.

3. Does the company have the right to ask about my health and take my temperature?

Yes, employers are allowed to ask about coronavirus-related symptoms and to take employees’ temperatures.  Employers may also send employees home if they report to work with symptoms of COVID-19 and may ask employees who report feeling ill at work, or who call in sick, about their symptoms to determine if they may have COVID-19. These measures must be consistently implemented and the information must be treated as a confidential medical record. If temperature taking at the workplace is mandated, the time spent being tested and waiting for a test is considered compensable time.

4. What if a co-worker gets coronavirus? Will I be informed?

Yes, employees who have had contact with a co-worker who tests positive for the coronavirus should be informed, but the employer will not identify the ill co-worker by name because this is confidential medical information.  Employers should contact their local health department for further guidance.

As employers develop plans to return to a more “normal” workplace reopening, they should communicate with employees often and consistently.