How to Navigate Your Company’s Policies for Returning to Work

Are you ready to head back to the office? If not, you're not alone. Nearly 80% of U.S. workers aren't feeling fully positive about going back to the office amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to recent research from The Wellbeing Lab and George Mason University's Center for the Advancement of Wellbeing. Furthermore, about 90% of those surveyed said they feel at least somewhat satisfied with their current work-from-home arrangements. Reasons that employees in the study cited for dreading a return to work include fear of catching COVID-19 in the workplace and preferring the flexibility of working from home, as many have now grown accustomed.

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But despite worker reservations, countless companies that have been closed during the stay-at-home orders are reopening and preparing employees for a return to work – some sooner rather than later. If you're among those whose employer is bringing staff back to work, it's important to understand best practices for navigating your company's return-to-work policy.

That process includes familiarizing yourself with your organization's specific guidelines for going back to the office, knowing whether your company can force you to return to the workplace, and learning how to effectively express your concerns to management or the human resources department.


Find Out Your Company's Return-to-Work Policy

The guidelines that employers are developing for their return-to-work guidance vary widely between companies, industries, and positions. In addition, each state may have different mandates and limits on how many people can gather in one place at a time. That's why it's critical to research and request information about your organization and municipality to see what your employer is doing in the area where you work.

Some examples of COVID-19-related precautions that employers are putting in place include:

  • Changing the office space layout to allow for more room between desks and workstations.
  • Enforcing social distancing rules while in company offices.
  • Staggering the days that people come into the office.
  • Limiting how many people come back in at once.
  • Testing employees for COVID-19 before coming to work.
  • Requiring masks and temperature checks.
  • Allowing employees to continue to work from home if they are not yet comfortable with coming back into the office.

Can Your Company Force You to Go Back to Work?

Despite an employer's best attempt to shield their workers from the risk of COVID-19, there are various reasons people may be apprehensive about being called back into the office. In addition to the general anxiety about possible exposure to the coronavirus while working or commuting on public transportation, some employees also may have existing medical conditions that increase their risk of complications should they catch the virus.

Because of these understandable reservations, many employees want to know whether their employer can legally require them to get back to work on-site rather than remotely. According to LegalZoom, whether you must return depends on a number of factors, including:

Essential workers such as health care professionals, first responders and food/agriculture employees "must report to work unless they are sick, have been exposed to the virus, or are normally covered by laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Family Medical Leave Act," according to LegalZoom.

Other employees may also be required to go back to work, including those who live in a state with at-will employment – unless they have an employment contract that specifically protects them from this requirement.

If you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, have symptoms of the coronavirus or need to care for a child or parent with the virus, then you may not have to return to work. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act gives some employees paid leave rights in the latter circumstance.


Express Your Concerns to Your Boss

If you're not sure whether you need to return to work and are concerned about the prospect of doing so in the era of COVID-19, reach out to your boss or human resources department for guidance. It's worth trying to explain your personal situation to your employer to see if an exception can be made to the company's return-to-work policy or if your start date from the office can be pushed back.

It was supposed to be a great year for Golden Daka. He would be the first member of his family to graduate from college. He had a big commencement speech planned for his graduation from Morehouse College, where he was a valedictorian.

"I wanted to give that huge speech onstage with my family, friends, and loved ones there, who made it very possible for me to go to Morehouse," says Daka.

But in March, campus emptied and classes went online. And then the moment he'd been waiting for — commencement — was postponed.

"It came to an abrupt end," says Daka, who had been expecting rites of passage and celebration. Instead, he landed in a pandemic. Worst of all, his grandmother, who was supposed to come to see him, graduate, passed away in their native Zambia. "It's been a really difficult transition," he says. "It's been one that I'm not going to lie has been filled with anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt."

Across the board, from entry-level jobs to paid internships, the prospects for new college graduates have plummeted during the pandemic. Despite everything, there has been a bright spot: his professional life. Dana landed a paid fellowship with the governor of Illinois after going through four rounds of remote interviews. "So I'm on the fortunate side. I know a lot of my classmates and other individuals around the nation are not."

Job postings for entry-level positions that are popular with new college graduates fell by 73%, compared with before COVID-19 hit, according to Julia Pollak, a labor economist with the job site ZipRecruiter.

Openings for internships are especially scarce. The internships popular among college students and new graduates are down 83%, Pollak says.

Still, Pollak says, even among the wreckage in the job market it's not entirely hopeless: "Even in a crisis, there are companies hiring; 18 million postings since COVID struck ... 3 million people are being hired each month or roundabout."

But for those members of the class of 2020 who have landed jobs, it has often been a strange journey. The now-familiar Zoom and Skype interviews are just one dimension to the virtual experience. Some job candidates record themselves on video, answering questions, and send their responses to the prospective employer.

"So now you have no interaction with a person at all," says Pollak.

Danielle Kaplan, who graduated this spring from the University of Iowa, landed a job with a startup in Kansas City.

Jessica Suderski

The lack of face-to-face human interaction has been one constant for Danielle Kaplan during her job search. Kaplan graduated this spring from the University of Iowa. She stayed at her mom's place outside Chicago, crashing on a couch. It was fine, but with a lot of activity around the house, it was tricky for her to find a quiet place for job interviews.

"So I feel like my interviewer saw a different background every time I met with them. It's been very difficult," she says.

As it turns out, those ever-shifting backgrounds didn't matter.

Kaplan landed a job with a Kansas City startup and says, "I'm really excited about it."

Her excitement is accompanied by trepidation because so much of the past few months have felt unreal, even disembodied.

"This is a huge major life transition that I'm about to undergo. And it doesn't feel that way," she says. "I've been virtually meeting people. I've been virtually getting an apartment. Nothing feels tangible to me."

That started to change over the weekend. She loaded up a rental truck and moved to her new hometown, Kansas City, enjoying some of the city's famed barbecue upon her arrival. There was nothing virtual about it.

Grocery prices have skyrocketed since the pandemic began, forcing struggling Americans to make tough choices

  The chaos that coronavirus brought to food supply chains is being felt by Americans’ wallets, as the complications of the pandemic have pushed grocery prices higher and forced many to go without the food they need.

According to data released last week by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, almost all kinds of food have seen an increase in its price since February. Beef and veal prices are up a staggering 20.2% since before the pandemic, while other staples like eggs (10.4%), poultry (8.6%) and pork (8.5%) have also seen significant increases.

As the Washington Post points out, these prices soared because the pandemic infected large amounts of workers forced factories to close, sparked hoarding and in general completely upended the country’s food supply chain by shutting down school kitchens, restaurants, and entertainment venues.

Combining these problems with high unemployment numbers and the expiration of the $600 enhanced unemployment benefits for nearly $30 million Americans mean that it’s even more difficult for many to meet their basic nutritional needs.

“Cutting back on food budgets is one of the first things people do,” Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, told the Post. “It’s a strategy for trying to cope with an economic shock or persistently limited resources.”

Two months into the pandemic, according to the Urban Institute, one in six Americans was food insecure. That number could get even worse with the disappearance of the $600 in extra benefits, and Waxman warned that even a sudden turnaround in the country’s fortunes wouldn’t immediately solve this issue.

“One of the things that’s hard to explain to people is that poverty lags unemployment,” she said.

“If we woke up tomorrow morning and things were dramatically better, I think we can expect food insecurity to be at elevated rates for a considerable period of time.”