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What are the best practices for small business employers planning a return to the office or worksite?

For small business employers, having employees on-site may be critical to business operations. Even when it is not, employers planning a return to on-site to work may want to take some of the following precautions:

  • Create clear, written policies about how the office or workplace will operate.
  • Provide PPE, including masks and hand sanitizer, for those who wish to use them.
  • Do not allow employees to work on-site while sick, particularly if they have COVID symptoms.
  • Assess the comfort level of your workforce before making policies that a majority of workers may not be comfortable with.

Most importantly, employers may want to be flexible and patient as workers adjust back to on-site work being a common practice. Some employees may not be ready for a hybrid work environment yet.

To make sure everyone is on the same page, employers may want to update and redistribute their Employee Handbooks.

What are best practices for masking in office?

While many masking requirements have been lifted, following the current CDC guidance may help protect your workers. Currently, the CDC still recommends masking for all indoor workers if the transmission rate in your area is high. Employers may also want to ask a lawyer to confirm that local laws do not require masking indoors, or impose other restrictions.

If you choose to not require masks in the office or workplace, you may want to allow employees to wear masks if they so choose.

In general, workers are required to do the work that their employer asks of them to keep their job. If a worker does not want to return to the office after being called back to work, there may not be any option but to let them go. But, keep in mind that employees with disabilities may request remote work as a reasonable accommodation, and in some situations, employers may need to allow it.

Because of lingering uncertainty, employers should generally be cautious about terminating employees under these circumstances. Speaking with a lawyer, as well as asking the employee why they are uncomfortable returning to the office, might be helpful before deciding on any disciplinary action.

Can employers legally offer incentives for employees to come back to the workplace?

Generally, yes. Incentives might come in the form of bonuses, raises, additional paid leave, catered lunches, gift cards, or other perks. However, employers should take care to make sure any incentive program is thoughtfully prepared and does not harm the morale of workers who cannot return to the office, or discriminate against workers with a reasonable accommodation to work remotely.

Additionally, incentives for employees to get vaccinated need to be carefully tailored so that employees do not feel coerced into disclosing medical information to get the incentive, as that may violate federal law.

Can employers require employees who moved away while working remotely during the pandemic to relocate back?

Yes, employers can require those who relocated to another city or state while working remotely during the pandemic to relocate back to the office. However, employers may want to consider that even in these situations, disability accommodations and other issues may still arise. If a Work from Home Policy or Employment Contract addresses remote work or relocation, employers should consult those documents first.

Many employees have thrived while working remotely, and many do not want to return to the office at all. If working remotely has been effective and employee retention is a concern, it may be smart for employers to continue allowing remote work.

When do employers have to pay relocation costs?

In general, no state or federal law requires employers to pay relocation costs, but there may be some exceptions due to the terms of an Employment Contract or Employee Handbook. Typically, relocation costs are only required when a contract with an employee requires covering these costs. Usually, employers only provide relocation costs as part of a job offer that requires an employee to relocate. However, depending on the terms of employment, an employer may need to pay those costs when ending a remote work policy and an employee must relocate.

It is worth noting that when the labor market is tight, paying relocation costs, even when not required to, could be cheaper and easier than hiring and training a replacement.

The federal government, despite having strict requirements for federal employees, does not mandate that individuals receive the COVID-19 vaccination before returning to work. However, federal, state and local laws do generally permit private employers to require a vaccination to be in the office, though there are limits and exceptions to be aware of.

Guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sets out that employers may require workers to get the COVID-19 vaccination. There are some exceptions for those who cannot get the vaccine because of an underlying health condition or for a religious reason. Those employees may be asked to complete a Vaccine Exemption Form.

In general, employers should have a health or safety purpose to require the vaccination, such as employees working in close proximity together or if they interact with customers in person.

Are vaccine requirements necessary?

As the COVID pandemic continues to evolve, employers may want to continue requiring workers be vaccinated, or have a valid reason for an exemption. Vaccines have been proven effective at reducing the risk of transmission as well as reducing the severity of the illness, and private employers may require them.

How can business owners assure employees that they are taking COVID safety seriously?

You can help your employees feel safe by creating clear written policies about your COVID safety measures. This may include policies for:

  • Regular cleaning and disinfecting of the workplace.
  • Time off for getting vaccinated and booster shots.
  • Time off for symptoms related to vaccinations or boosters.
  • Additional sick leave if an employee or their family gets COVID.

Additionally, provide employees with clear information about where in the office they can find PPE, cleaning equipment, and other information about office safety.

What are the best practices for employers who find out an employee has COVID or COVID symptoms?

Larger businesses and employers may want to consider a contact tracing program. For smaller businesses, however, this can typically be handled by a manager or owner.

If an employee reports that they have COVID, an employer may want to notify other employees or even clients or customers who have been in close contact with that employee. Doing so can help stop the spread and limit the effects of any possible exposures.

If an employee appears to develop symptoms while working, or shows up to work with symptoms of COVID, employers may request the employee test for COVID and require the employee to leave the workplace.

When should an employee who is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 return to work?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that those who show COVID-19 symptoms should not return to work until at least 5 days have passed since the onset of symptoms. They should also be fever-free for at least 24 hours and their other symptoms need to show improvement. For those with severe illness or compromised immune systems, the waiting period may be up to 10 - 20 days.

Employers can monitor and exclude employees from the workplace if they show symptoms.

If you have more questions about communicating your return to work expectations to employees, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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