Welcome to COVID Questions, TIME’s advice column. We’re trying to make living through the pandemic a little easier, with expert-backed answers to your toughest coronavirus-related dilemmas. While we can’t and don’t offer medical or legal advice—those questions should go to your doctor or lawyer—we hope this column will help you sort through this stressful and confusing time. Got a question? Write to us at [email protected].
Today, Robert from Virginia asks:
I work as a front desk receptionist. Our corporate office ordered that all offices nationwide have at least one person return to work full-time. It was decided I would be best to do this because I’m young and the only employee without any kids.
Before my full-time return, my company took precautions such as requiring masks for anyone in our suite (including myself at all times), plus setting up hand sanitizer stations and air purifiers to keep in the lobby around my desk. I get almost no visitors/deliveries since everyone else is still working remotely, so I’m alone almost entirely. At most I’ll see two or three people each day as they come in to pick up some documents then leave after a few minutes.
However, as I continue to watch local infection rates rise, I feel less and less safe. When I told my bosses, they were supportive and asked what they can do to make it more comfortable for me. I honestly don’t know aside from magically making the numbers trend to a better place over a sustained period of time. I’m forced to choose between resigning or coming to an office in-person. I know it’s relatively safe here compared to other jobs, but still, sometimes I feel like a sacrificial lamb.
What can I do to talk to my boss or make my work environment better?
Let’s start with the good news: Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, agrees that your work environment sounds fairly low-risk.
“A limited number of interactions that are brief—less than 15 minutes—with people who are wearing masks is pretty safe,” Gonsenhauser says.
Still, if you choose to keep coming in, there are a few extra precautions you could request, Gonsenhauser says. Your supervisor should ask the building manager to implement capacity limits on elevators and mandate that everyone in the building (not just your suite) wear masks at all times. You could also ask for a “sneeze guard” in front of your desk and designate a specific package and document drop-off zone at least six feet away from your work area. And if you’re able, it’s safest to walk, bike or drive alone to work, rather than taking shared transportation.
Even with COVID-19 precautions in place, though, “your fears are absolutely understandable and reasonable,” Gonsenhauser says. “Don’t keep how you’re feeling to yourself.”
Your bosses sound pretty receptive to your concerns, which is good. It’s worth telling them that you simply don’t feel comfortable returning to work and would prefer to work from home.
But here’s the bad news: There aren’t a ton of legal protections available to you if your bosses push back.
Congress did pass a federal act that protects workers if they need to take leave to quarantine, care for someone who is quarantined or care for children whose school or daycare is closed—but none of that helps you. In fact, as you’ve seen, this policy “unfortunately makes those without children a prime target for bearing the burden of in-person work,” says Stacy Hawkins, an employment law expert at Rutgers Law School.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also has pandemic safety recommendations for U.S. workplaces, but they’re non-binding. Fourteen states, including Virginia, have implemented COVID-19 workplace safety protocols on top of OSHA’s, which may provide stronger legal protections. The National Employment Law Project has a nice list of those here.
Even still, office workers typically have the lowest level of legal protection, since their jobs are mostly considered low-risk, says Rachel McFarland, a staff attorney at the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center.
If your office isn’t following the guidelines set by OSHA and Virginia, your first step is bringing that to your bosses’ attention. In a perfect world, they’d make the necessary changes voluntarily—but if not, you could file an anonymous complaint with the state. (Just make sure you file in writing, McFarland says, because a phone complaint won’t trigger a site inspection.)
But if your workplace is doing everything it should be doing and you simply don’t feel comfortable—which is perfectly fair!—there aren’t a ton of legal options available to you. McFarland says your best bet is to explain to your boss that you feel unsafe, and to point out that OSHA’s COVID-19 policy encourages employers to use teleworking and virtual meetings where possible. “I’d query how many emergencies there are that require somebody to be in the office,” she says. “It certainly seems that it’s possible to telework.”
If they don’t agree, maybe there’s a compromise you could reach. Could you ask to work from home most days and stop by the office a few times a week? Are any of your coworkers willing to rotate in-person shifts so you don’t have to go in every day?
If you do choose to resign, that’s understandable—but keep in mind that you may not be eligible for unemployment benefits if you voluntarily leave your job, Hawkins says.
This is not an easy decision, and you’re not alone in having to make it. Good luck and stay safe.