Health Advice



Your office is reopening. Do you have to go back? These are your options

Jessica Roy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

Your boss wants you back at the office. But you're worried.

Maybe coronavirus cases are rising in your area. Maybe you don't know whether your workplace plans to enforce any safety precautions. Maybe your boss has mentioned the global pandemic in a way that makes you think they aren't taking it particularly seriously.

As offices reopen, employees are trying to figure out how to balance keeping their jobs with not getting themselves or their loved ones sick.

"Workers are scared," said Irene Tung, senior researcher and policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project. A survey of workers found that many "are going to work even though they believe that they are seriously risking their own health or the health of a family member."

In California, offices where telework is unavailable are currently allowed to be open. Office-based worksites in Los Angeles County can reopen with safeguards. Many offices are developing plans to phase in bringing back workers, though some are going remote permanently or not expecting anyone back until at least 2021.

Know your rights


There is no federal law that says your employer has to implement certain procedures or restrictions in order to reopen, Tung said, and there's a patchwork of varying laws at the state and local levels. The guidelines issued by the CDC are just that, not binding rules.

"Workers have very little recourse if their employers call them back to work. There's no broad right to refuse hazardous work in this country," Tung said. "There's no right to say, 'I'm not going to perform these job duties because proper protection has not been provided to me.'"

And in most states, if you get sick or injured at work, you can probably only seek remedy through worker's compensation laws, not by directly suing your employer, according to the National Employment Law Project's Worker Safety and Health program director Debbie Berkowitz.

"Only in very rare cases can a worker who is injured or killed at work sue an employer," Berkowitz said via email, adding that the worker has to prove intent to harm, which would be tough when there's a highly contagious illness going around.


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