As the country begins to relax its stay-at-home orders and reopen for business, employers are beginning to plan on how to move employees back to the workplace.
We have collected frequently asked questions that we are hearing from employers on returning to work. This page will be frequently updated with more questions and answers as they arise.
Returning to Work
Question: Can we screen employees returning to work for COVID-19?
Answer: Yes. Generally, inquiries about an employee’s health or a medical exam (like a temperature check) would not be allowed, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that screening employees for symptoms of COVID-19 is allowed since it is a direct threat to others in the workplace. Because of that, you may inquire about symptoms related to the virus, require self-reporting by employees, and take employees’ temperatures.
Known symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, chills, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and sudden loss of taste or smell. As the medical community learns more about COVID-19, additional symptoms could be added to this list. Employers can check this page for currently recognized symptoms.
If you decide to do screenings, make sure you screen all employees; otherwise you may find yourself in the middle of a discrimination claim. And remember that all information about employees’ health — including a lack of symptoms or temperature — must be kept confidential.
Question: We are reopening after business closure due to COVID-19. Can we bring some employees back, but not others?
Answer: Yes. If you are recalling some positions, but not others, you should document the business reasons why only those positions were recalled. If you are recalling some employees in a certain position, but not everyone in that position, you should document the objective, job-related criteria you used to decide which employees to bring back. Seniority or previous job performance, for example, would be acceptable criteria and relatively easy to defend if you are ever challenged.
Question: Some of our employees have said they don’t feel safe returning to work. Can we just permanently replace them? What other options do we have?
Answer: We recommend caution when deciding to replace an employee who refuses to work because of concerns about COVID-19. Here are few things to keep in mind:
- Recalled employees may have a right to job-protected leave under a city ordinance, state law, or the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). See our overview of the FFCRA on the HR Support Center.
- Employees who are in a high-risk category — either because they are immunocompromised or have an underlying condition — may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or state law if their situation doesn’t qualify them for leave under the FFCRA (or if they have run out of that leave). It would be a reasonable accommodation under the circumstances to allow the employee to work from home or, if working from home is not possible, to take an unpaid leave.
- Employees who live with someone who is high risk are not entitled to a reasonable accommodation under federal law, but we strongly recommend allowing them to work from home if possible or take an unpaid leave if requested. Otherwise, they may decide to quit and file for unemployment insurance. If you want to keep them as an employee, being compassionate and flexible is your best bet.
- Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, an employee’s refusal to perform a task will be protected if all of the following conditions are met: Where possible, the employee asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so; the employee refused to work in “good faith,” which means that the employee must genuinely believe that an imminent danger exists; a reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury; and there isn’t enough time, because of the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection.
Check state and local law to see if additional protections may apply.
Instead of replacing employees who express fear about contracting COVID-19, we recommend that you consider methods to encourage employees to come to work and to help put their minds at ease. Consider emphasizing all of the safety methods you have put in place (such as scheduled handwashing, frequent disinfection of surfaces, social distancing rules, reduced customer capacity, staggered shifts, or more extreme measures if warranted by your industry). We recommend relying on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health department guidance for establishing safe working conditions at this time. You might also consider offering premium pay (a.k.a. hazard pay) or additional paid time off for use in the future to employees who must come to work.
Question: Can we reduce pay because of economic slowdown due to COVID-19?
Answer: You can reduce an employee's rate of pay based on business or economic slowdown, provided that this is not done retroactively. For instance, if you give employees notice that their pay will change on the 10th, and your payroll period runs from the 1st through the 15th, make sure that their next check still reflects the higher rate of pay for the first 9 days of the payroll period.
Non-exempt employees (those entitled to overtime)
A non-exempt employee's new rate of pay must still meet the applicable federal, state, or local minimum wage. Employees must be given notice of the change at the time of the change, or before. This gives them the ability to stop working if they don’t agree with the new rate of pay and can help prevent a wage claim.
Exempt employees (those not entitled to overtime)
An exempt employee's new salary must still be at or above the federal or state minimum for exempt employees. The federal minimum salary is $684 per week. Several states have weekly minimums that are higher than that (California and New York, for instance, are in the $1,000 per week range). The minimum may not be prorated based on hours worked.
Exempt employee reclassification
If an exempt employee has so little work to do that it does not make sense to pay them the federal or state minimum (or you simply cannot afford to), they can be reclassified as non-exempt and be paid by the hour instead. This must not be done on a very short-term basis. Although there are no hard and fast rules about how long you can reclassify someone, we would recommend not changing their classification unless you expect the slowdown to last for more than three weeks. Changing them back and forth frequently could cause you to lose their exemption retroactively and potentially owe years of overtime.
Employees with contracts or CBAs
If employees have employment contracts or are subject to collective bargaining agreements, you should consult with an attorney before making any changes to pay.
Question: Do we still have to provide emergency paid sick leave or expanded FMLA if we lay off or furlough employees?
Answer: No. Employers who are closed — either due to lack of business or a state or local order — do not have to provide these leaves. Employees who are furloughed (temporarily not working but still on the payroll) are also not entitled to these benefits. In either of these cases, employees would be eligible for unemployment insurance instead. However, employers should ensure that they are not making furlough or layoff decisions based on an employee’s request or potential need for leave, as this would likely be considered interference or retaliation (and grounds for a lawsuit).
Question: How do I make a telecommuting policy?
Answer: Although some employers will be comfortable sending everyone home with their laptop and saying, go forth and be productive, most will want to be a little more specific. A good telecommuting policy will generally address productivity standards, hours of work, how and when employees should be in contact with their manager or subordinates, and office expenses.
For instance, your policy might require that employees are available by phone and messaging app during their regular in-office hours, that they meet all deadlines and maintain client contacts per usual, and that they check in with their manager at the close of each workday to report what they have accomplished. Be sure to let employees know whom to contact if they run into technical difficulties at home.
You’ll also want to specify how expenses related to working from home will be dealt with. If you don’t expect there to be any additional expenses involved, communicate this. You don’t want employees thinking this is their chance to purchase a standing desk and fancy ergonomic chair on your dime. That said, you should consider whether employees will incur reasonable and necessary expenses while working from home. Some states mandate reimbursement for these kinds of expenses, but it’s a good practice to cover such costs even if it’s not required by law.