Vaccinated or not, many staff wish to keep away

As vaccine distribution slowly gains traction, employers are planning a return to normal – and to the office – just like many workers settle at home.

Vaccinated or not, more than half of employees said they would like to continue working from home even after the pandemic has ended, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

“Far fewer people will want to return to the office five days a week,” said Michael Schmidt, a labor attorney for Cozen O’Connor in New York. “The million dollar question is how many days are it less than five?”

This could largely depend on the type of job, Schmidt said, such as whether employees regularly interact with customers or work together in a team instead of working independently.

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There is already a lot of discussion going on about who should return to the office and when, said Carol Goodman, chair of the employment practice at New York-based law firm Herrick, Feinstein.

“I hear it from both sides,” she said. But “until vaccines are available to everyone, it is very difficult to ask people to come back.”

However, employers do not depend on vaccinations for their return to work plans, according to a separate report from law firm Littler Mendelson.

Most of them extend remote work at least into the summer or allow employees to volunteer on site for the time being. And the majority plan to maintain the security precautions related to Covid-19 even if vaccines are available.

“Particularly during the transition period – when some workers are vaccinated and others are not – organizations must remain hypervigilant in enforcing these guidelines for occupational safety reasons, while taking employee morale into account,” said Devjani Mishra, head of Littler’s Covid Task Force and Return to-work team.

Experts say employers can require employees to be vaccinated, but that is unlikely unless they work in high-risk environments like nursing homes or meat packers.

Most US organizations said they would encourage rather than oblige their employees to get vaccinated. This is the result of research by the Society for Human Resource Management carried out in December. Only 3% said they will need it for at least some workers.

Equal opportunity laws allow companies to prescribe the flu and other vaccines, but employees can opt out under certain circumstances. The same may apply to Covid-19 vaccines, which are based on early guidance.

According to Schmidt, returning to the office could be similar. “The bottom line is that an employer has the right to hire workers unless an employee needs housing that prevents them from returning to the office.”

An employer has the right to hire employees.

Michael Schmidt

Labor and Employment Attorney at Cozen O’Connor

“If someone says they just don’t want to go back to the office, they can be fired,” Goodman added. “Employees need to know the guidelines and understand the exceptions.”

It remains to be seen whether employers will allow employees to continue working from home. According to a report by the Conference Board, many companies have announced that they will be more flexible.

Meanwhile, Schmidt advises workers to lay the groundwork now for the schedule they want to see later.

“Just as employers start planning what they’re going to do, employees should also include their managers and HR departments in their plans,” he said.

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