What to Do When Employees Do Not Want to Return to Work

Currently, all 50 states have begun reopening their economies after COVID-19 closures, which means small businesses across the county — from restaurants to gyms to hair salons — have reopened or are preparing to reopen.

While business owners know that they need employees to return to work in order to grow their businesses, some employees are reluctant to return to work due to fear of being exposed.

Employees who decide not to return to work

Many states including Vermont, Oklahoma and Tennessee have created websites for employers asking them to report employees who are refusing to return to work.

This can put business owners in a difficult situation, because reporting workers who decide not to come back to work can effectively put an end to their unemployment benefits, yet bringing employees back is required for loan forgiveness under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Luckily, employers don’t need to worry about a reduction of their PPP loan forgiveness amount if they offer employees their jobs back in good faith and both the offer and rejection are documented, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The business owner still has to manage employees and decide whether to fire employees who refuse to work.

What Business Owners Can Do

Business owners who have employees who aren’t interested in returning to work should first ensure that they take all safety precautions and inform their employees.

Depending on the industry, specific strategies may differ. For example, employees who are in close contact with customers will need to take different precautions from employees who are able socially distant from them.

When it comes to COVID-19 reopening, businesses are regulated at both the state and local level. It is important to be familiar with and follow the policies in your area. You could face fines or licensing issues if you don’t follow the state and/or local laws. It can also make it difficult for employees to return to work.

Businesses may need to take extra precautions for employees at higher risk from complications from COVID-19. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance for employers on handling requests for accommodations from employees based on COVID-19.

Employers should speak directly to their employers about workplace safety concerns. Consider implementing solutions suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on limiting exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.

Are employees required to return to work?

An employee cannot be forced into a job they don’t like. But whether they can still collect unemployment insurance benefits will depend on state law, which typically does not allow out-of-work employees to continue collecting unemployment if there is “suitable” employment available to them.

“Suitable” employment in the times of COVID-19 is complicated, but will likely depend on the employer’s compliance with health and safety regulations and suggested protocols from organization such as the CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Keep in mind that some states, such as Vermont, do require employers to report employees who refuse suitable employment.

Because state law is different and this is a complex area of law, it is wise that you consult an employment lawyer who can help you.

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Cyndy Lane