Are Your Employees Afraid to Return to Work?

If you have employees working from home, and you want to transition them back to the workplace as the economy picks up, you may find it's harder than you once thought. For some employees, nervousness about remaining health risks is an impediment — especially for those who haven't been vaccinated.

Many Americans clamored to be vaccinated earlier this year when vaccines first became available but doses were scarce. In some places today, however, there is more vaccine than people who want to be vaccinated. Federal officials have estimated that 70 to 85% of the population may need to be immune (through vaccine or contracting COVID) before the pandemic is contained. Comparing the national COVID-19 vaccination effort to a war, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official recently commented that "we're about to enter the hand-to-hand combat phase." In other words, it may not be easy to get some employees to feel comfortable being around colleagues, customers and others.

Avoiding the 'Nuclear Option'

Whether vaccination "hesitancy" or other issues are involved, in some situations you may have the legal right to terminate employees who refuse to return to their old workplaces. But that approach represents a "nuclear option" you're probably better off avoiding.

If having your employees return to your worksite is the best scenario for your business success, it might be tempting to insist they do so. But should you? Here are some possible reasons to not implement a blanket return-or-quit policy.

The first step in formulating a strategy to get as many employees back to your worksite as possible is to get a complete picture of why the holdouts are reluctant to stop working from home. Different reasons may require different solutions. Consider conducting a survey but avoid giving the impression that simply preferring to work at home is a compelling enough reason to allow it.

Possible Help from Uncle Sam

Some employees who want to continue working from home may say their lives are frantic and they're too busy with family demands to get vaccinated, and thus don't feel safe. Or they may have other reasons for not wanting to get vaccinated. One possible solution for those employees is to give them paid time off work to get their vaccinations. (Some employers have taken that approach a step further by giving various bonuses to employees who get vaccinated, on top of their regular pay.)

The American Rescue Plan Act allows such employers to claim a refundable tax credit (applied to their payroll tax liability for employees' Social Security and Medicare benefits) for COVID-19-related paid leave. An eligible employer is any business, including a tax-exempt organization, with fewer than 500 employees. Taking leave to get a COVID-19 vaccination qualifies the recipient for such paid leave, as does recovering from any injury, disability, illness or condition related to the vaccinations. The tax credit is capped at 80 hours and a maximum daily pay equivalent of $511.

Note: The tax credit deal ends on September 30.

Coaxing Tips

If financial incentives aren't appropriate and employees plagued with health concerns need additional coaxing to return to work, here are some more ideas:

No matter how you approach the task at hand, be aware of the many health conditions that may make people more vulnerable to contracting or having an acute case of COVID-19. The CDC's list includes cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, heart conditions, obesity, pregnancy, smoking, and Type 2 diabetes. Some employees with these conditions might worry about COVID-19 related health risks at the workplace, even if they've been vaccinated. That may be the place to draw the reasonableness-of-concern line, and think creatively about bringing them around, consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws.

In all cases, be sure to review how not only federal but state and local statutes may impact the approaches you can take. Tapping the expertise of an employment law attorney is advisable.

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