As workplaces begin to open back up, workplace safety is now more important than ever.
In some parts of the country, life is slowly reclaiming snippets of normalcy as the COVID-19 pandemic continues its path. Salons are starting to accept hair appointments, patio seating is slowly opening at restaurants, and companies are figuring out how to return to the office.
But what if you feel like your employer is pushing you back into the office too soon? You can probably do your work just fine from home, and the idea of exposing yourself — and your family — to the virus still has many of us feeling on edge.
Expressing your discomfort and your concern for workplace safety can be an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s an important one.
Here’s what a safe work environment should look like these days, how to express your discomfort to your boss or manager, and ways to approach job interviews moving forward.
What does a safe workplace look like with COVID-19?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in general, requires workplaces to be “free of known health and safety hazards.” However, it released a document to specifically help guide workplaces through COVID-19.
Here are some of the procedures it recommends companies implement to help reduce employees’ risk of exposure:
Encourage hand-washing and make hand sanitizer widely available.
Urge employees to work from home or take sick days if they’re not feeling well.
Explore more flexible work policies — like more telecommuting or staggered workdays — to limit the number of people in the office.
Keep up the regular office cleanings (especially in communal areas and at desks).
Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also issued strategies and recommendations for businesses wanting to resume normal operation. Some of these action items include:
Conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks (i.e. taking employees’ temperatures before entering the office).
Encouraging workers to wear a face mask and practice social distancing.
Educating and reminding employees about proper protocols.
Offering to pay for transportation alternatives to employees who rely on public transportation, if possible.
OSHA and the CDC are also encouraging workplaces to develop and implement infectious disease preparedness and response plans.
Expressing your discomfort returning to the office
Although OSHA and the CDC have released these guidelines, they’re not necessarily mandatory, which means there’s no guarantee all companies will comply. So, what do you do if you’re high risk or simply uncomfortable going into the office right now?
First, you should have a conversation with your employer. This may feel uncomfortable, but it’s important you express your concerns. If you’re vulnerable and have an underlying health condition, you shouldn’t have to provide a doctor’s note, but your employer may ask for it anyway, so be prepared.
You can also share alternatives to returning to the office, like continued work-from-home accommodations. Point to your remote productivity, and let your employer know you’re dedicated — you just personally feel uncomfortable returning to the office at this time. If this isn’t possible, ask about switching to a role that would allow you to work remotely.
Exploring your options and knowing your rights
If your employer won’t budge, you have a few options. Look into the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires certain employers to give their employees paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave due to COVID-19-related reasons. Some of these reasons include caring for a sick family member or a child whose school or care facility is closed due to the coronavirus.
It’s also important to know your rights. Although employers can legally lay you off if you refuse to return to the workplace, some cities and states have put regulations in place to protect workers during this time.
For instance, Michigan’s governor issued an executive order forbidding companies from firing employees who stay home due to COVID-19 reasons, according to TIME. The Texas Workforce Commission also let residents know they can continue to receive unemployment if they don’t feel comfortable returning to work.
In general, employee rights will vary by city and state. You can reach out to your local or state OSHA office or local health department if you feel as though your employer is acting irresponsibly or if you have questions.
What job interviews will look like moving forward
With unemployment rates at a record high, a large number of Americans won’t be returning to the workplace. Instead, they’ll be searching for a job. If you’re in this camp, it’s possible employers want you to come into the office for an in-person interview.
If you’re not comfortable going into an office for an interview, it’s OK to voice your concern and suggest alternatives, like a video interview. There’s no need to disclose your medical conditions when doing this either.
Ultimately, an employer should understand these unprecedented circumstances. If they don’t, then perhaps it’s not a great culture fit anyways.