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Ask HR: “What can I do if employees are afraid to return to work?”

Two masked employees uncertain about returning back to work

The coronavirus pandemic is creating widespread uncertainty for many local businesses. Our team is fielding lots of questions from individuals and this Ask HR question is one we’re hearing from both employers and employees alike.

To answer this HR question, we reached out to Michele Kauinui, Director of HR Services at simplicityHR by ALTRES for her expert answer.


Ask HR: “When businesses reopen from coronavirus shutdowns, what can I do if employees are afraid to return to work?” 


Headshot of Michele Kauinui, simplicityHR Director of HR Services

Michele: It’s likely that most employees will return to work in waves—a gradual, evaluative process to get businesses back up and running. Even so, many will likely still be fearful to go back to work.

If employees believe they are in imminent danger, they may refuse work under Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). However, this won’t typically apply to those who have just a generalized fear of catching COVID-19 at work.

As with all HR issues, address each employee’s concern on a case-by-case basis. Listen empathically and engage in open dialogue. Fully understanding an employee’s concern will help you determine how best to respond.

Depending on the situation, there may be special considerations you need to make for employees with disabilities, especially those with immunocompromising conditions (e.g. older workers, pregnant workers, those with chronic medical conditions) under Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

If an employee is concerned about returning to work because they’ve contracted COVID-19, are caring for someone with COVID-19, or has childcare issues related to COVID-19 school closures, you may be required to offer them paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Another effective way of easing employee concerns about returning to work is to ensure you’ve taken the necessary steps to make your workplace as safe as possible. This means having a plan in place to address things like how you will assess workplace risk, implement cleaning and hygiene protocols, screen employees (if applicable), and communicate going forward.

You should weigh each option carefully, based on the employee’s specific situation and type of business you have.

Above all else, be flexible where you can. This is an unprecedented time and employers would be wise to retain their best employees.

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This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice, and readers should consult with their advisor or counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material.

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