Returning to the Office in the Coronavirus Pandemic
As the economy re-opens in many parts of the country, employees who have been working from home or furloughed are returning to the workplace.
For others, going into the work place has continued, with a multitude of changes and disruptions to the way things used to be. The coronavirus pandemic is transforming work norms and will continue to affect individual’s schedules, workspaces, protocols for entering and leaving the workspace, use of elevators, meetings, etc.
The pandemic launched us into the new world of physical distancing, mask wearing, distance learning, and a host of other new social norms imposed by the threat of this infection. For many of us, this has meant uncertainty and destabilization in almost every area of life.
If you are now returning to work, you may have many questions and some uncertainty about safety and how the daily routine at your workplace — office, factory floor, classroom, or other setting — may be changed.
This guide explores some of the adjustments you can expect to see your employer make as employees return to work during the coronavirus pandemic, what you can do to ensure your own safety, and how to communicate concerns about workplace safety to your employer or to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Learn about employers’ obligations to provide a safe and healthy workplace.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workers have certain rights and employers have certain obligations regarding health and safety in the workplace. OSHA’s Workers’ Rights publication states, “Employers have the responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards. This is commonly known as the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act.”
Employers have the obligation to protect their employees from exposure to the coronavirus in the workplace. Protections have already taken a variety of forms, such as the temporary closure of schools, factories, offices, restaurants, and stores around the country, the adoption of work-from-home policies, requirements for personal protective equipment (PPE), and rigorous cleaning and disinfecting regimens.
As workplaces re-open, and you are called to return to the workplace, expect to see many changes. Office furniture rearrangement, additional walls, barriers, and shields, new traffic patterns in buildings, and different facility entry and exit requirements may be some of the most obvious. There may be new schedules, such as staggered work hours, so that fewer people are in the office or work site at the same time.
Employers will also likely be cleaning and disinfecting more frequently throughout the workplace, especially in shared spaces, such as bathrooms, elevators, or conference rooms. Gathering places, such as breakrooms and cafeterias may be closed, have new occupancy limits, or may be moved to different, larger spaces.
Other changes may be less obvious and might relate to heating, cooling, and air-handling systems, as facility ventilation and air flow is a factor in containing the spread of the virus.
The obligation to protect workers is not a new law. However, the novel coronavirus has created new circumstances and safety considerations. You can review the guidance that OSHA has provided to employers for how to protect employees in its recent publication Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. Your state may also have guidance for different types of businesses available on the state’s government website.
In addition, the CDC published Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in May 2020 with general information, as well as specific guidance for certain industries, such as airlines.
Understanding what is expected of your employer and watching for those changes can be reassuring as you return to your work site.
Prepare to return to work.
Ideally your employer has been communicating regularly with you about its plans for making the workplace safe for returning employees. However, you should also feel free to ask specific questions if you need more information. For example, contact your human resources department or health and safety office to ask:
- How will physical/social distancing be accomplished?
- What cleaning and disinfection practices have been put in place?
- What protective equipment will be provided?
- Will guests and/or customers be issued protective equipment on the premises?
- What are the policies and procedures around shared equipment?
- Are there new travel policies?
- What is the protocol if I become sick with COVID-19, as far as returning to work after recovering?
- Should I come to work if I am not sick, but I have been exposed to COVID-19, and if not, how long before I can return to work?
In advance of returning to work, assemble your own safety supplies, even if your employer will be providing some PPE. It’s a good idea to have your own face masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant available to use in your own work area or during your commute, as necessary. Take the precautions that you feel are necessary to remain safe and to feel comfortable.
Address your anxiety about public transportation.
Creating a safe work site is your employer’s job. Getting to work, however, is your responsibility. If you drive to work, you may be concerned about protecting yourself while getting gasoline. A mask, hand sanitizer, and a supply of gloves for pumping your own gas may be enough to manage the process and any concerns you have.
If you use public transportation to get to work, you have more to pay attention to. Visit your local transit authority’s website to learn about changes in bus, train, and trolley schedules, as well as expectations for passenger behavior. Most city transit authorities are sanitizing their equipment and stations more frequently and expect passengers to wear masks and maintain the six-foot physical distance from each other. It’s not hard to imagine that as more and more people return to work; this will be challenging and may create longer commute times.
Consider some of the following suggestions for managing your anxiety and using public transit during the pandemic:
- Read the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) publication, The COVID-19 Pandemic: Public Transportation Responds: Safeguarding Riders and Employees to learn about the precautions that transit authorities are taking to make stations and equipment safe for their workers and passengers.
- Wear a face mask during your commute.
- Carry alcohol-based wipes so you can clean surfaces you must touch before doing so, such as turnstiles or ticket machine interfaces.
- Consider wearing gloves during your commute. Have enough pairs (one pair to get to work and a second to return home for each day you go to work). Wash each pair after one use.
- Wash your hands (or use hand sanitizer if this is not possible) immediately after using public transportation — when you arrive at work and when you get home.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Request to change your work schedule so you can travel in off-hours.
- To protect your fellow workers and commuters, do not use public transportation or go to work if you are sick!
Request an accommodation if you have known COVID-19 risk factors.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to respond to an employee’s request for an accommodation that will help the employee to continue to do his or her essential work. That means that if you have any of the COVID-19 risk factors that have been identified, you may have the right to an accommodation that allows you to continue to work safely.
During this pandemic, accommodations might include continuing to work from home, a move out of a shared work area to an office, move to a different work location, attendance only at teleconferences and release from in-person meetings, or other ways to reduce contact.
The CDC identifies the following factors as conferring a high risk for severe illness from COVID-19:
- Age 65 years and older
- Underlying medical conditions, especially if not well controlled, including:
- Chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
- Serious heart conditions
- Immunocompromise, as a result of factors such as cancer treatment, smoking, bone marrow or organ transplantation, immune deficiencies, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, and prolonged use of corticosteroids and other immune-weakening medications
- Severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)
- Chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis
- Liver disease
The Job Accommodation Network — a free service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy — provides guidance and examples on how to request an accommodation, including a format for the letter in which you request the accommodation. Your request should always be made in writing. Sometimes a request results in a simple yes or no answer; often employers and employees work together to negotiate a compromise that meets both parties’ needs.
What can you do if you believe the workplace is unsafe?
When you return to work you may find conditions that concern you, you may have coworkers who are not complying with social distancing or protective equipment policies, or you may have ideas for ways to make things safer.
Talk to your manager about issues or practices that you observe, which are causing concern. Ideas for making the workplace safer should be welcome. It’s often better to bring up an issue if you can also suggest a solution at the same time. If you are still concerned after speaking with your manager, consider speaking to someone in the human resources department.
Remember that you also have the right to File a Complaint with OSHA if you believe that your workplace has unsafe or unhealthy working conditions. Call your local OSHA regional or area office at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742). You have a right to do this without fear of retaliation.
Torchlight does not provide medical advice. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice because of something you read on Torchlight. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911.
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