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How to Negotiate a Return to Work

Employers are implementing precautions to bring workers back into the office, but employees may be reluctant to return while coronavirus cases are still rising in parts of the country.

Sandra Block, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, raises the question: If you don’t feel safe, can your employer require you to return to work?

The answer depends on a number of factors, but your individual circumstances are most important, says Alison Green, author of “Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses and Other Tricky Situations at Work.”

If you have a medical condition that puts you at high risk should you get COVID-19, you have some protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who are disabled.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employees with disabilities that put them at high risk for complications from the pandemic can request telework as a “reasonable accommodation” to reduce their chances of infection.

That doesn’t mean your employer is required to allow you to work from home, Green says. Your supervisor could suggest an alternative, such as putting you in an isolated part of your office. Your employer can also reject telework if you can’t perform your duties at home – if you’re a waiter at a restaurant, for example. But at the very least, the ADA requires your employer to consider alternatives that will reduce your risk of becoming ill.

Working parents whose kids’ schools remain closed are also facing challenges this fall. Your employer isn’t required to allow you to work from home to take care of your children, Green says. You have a couple of options, although they’re not ideal:

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act stimulus package signed into law in March requires employers with fewer than 500 employees to give workers an additional 10 weeks of time off at two-thirds of their regular pay if they need to stay home to care for a child whose school is closed due to the pandemic.

If you’re forced to quit to take care of a child (or children) whose school was closed due to the pandemic, you’re eligible for unemployment benefits.

If you’re asking to work from home because you have an underlying medical condition, send an email to your boss or human resources department and put in the subject line “official request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Note in the email that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has specifically said that employees with disabilities that put them at high risk for complications of COVID-19 may request telework as a reasonable accommodation to reduce their chances of infection. The ADA doesn’t protect you if you want to work from home because someone in your household has an underlying medical condition, Green says. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask to telework. “Try to negotiate with your employer to see if there’s something you can work out,” she says.

Editor’s Note: Sandra Block is a senior editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine,

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