Steven Mitchell Sack Discusses the Balance between Employees’ Rights and Workplace Safety as Companies Open up Again

NEW YORK, NEW YORK — With COVID-19 infection rates decreasing and more people getting vaccinated, companies are beginning to reopen their offices and bring their employees back in. But could an employee refuse to return to the office and decide to work remotely instead? Steven Mitchell Sack, “The Employee’s Lawyer,” says the answer is not that simple when considering such factors as employee classification, state employment laws and what their employment contract says.

“If your company deems you to be an ‘essential’ worker, you must report to the office,” Mr. Sack says. “On the other hand, your employer must be sure that their workers are properly classified as essential, or else they will face serious fines. If you don’t believe that your job functions define you as an essential worker, please consult with an employment attorney.”

If the employee is concerned about contracting the virus at work, Mr. Sack says, that should be addressed with their supervisor immediately. “Anyone who has a compromised immune system may be excused from working in person,” he says. “If you tell your boss that you don’t want to come in because you are afraid of getting sick, that may not be a valid excuse.”

Mr. Sack says some workers may try to defy the workplace edict, which might not be wise. “Before refusing to come into work, they should check the state’s employment laws to see what their rights are,” he says. “Some states, such as New York, are at-will states. That means, if you refuse to show up for work, you can be fired immediately. The only exception is if the employee belongs to a union; then they have protections that preclude them from termination.”

In the event the employee is terminated, Mr. Sack emphasizes that every firing is negotiable. “See if you can get an extension on health coverage, severance pay and retention of benefits, as well as cashing in unused sick and vacation days, pension plans, 401(k)s and unpaid commissions,” he says.

Mr. Sack said, while employees may be responsible to come into work, their employers should be sure that all infection control protocols are put in place. “Workplace safety is key,” he says. “It is the company’s responsibility to protect their workers from becoming seriously ill. That means setting up desks six feet away, making sure masks are worn — especially in open workspaces — and there is an abundant supply of hand sanitizer. It is important to keep their employees safe during these trying times.”

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