We’re getting enormous pushback from our employees to an email we sent out last week stating that employees need to return to the workplace. At the same time, our organization, which is set up to serve customers, can’t survive if we let all the employees who want to work from home do so. It’s not fair to our customer or the employees who show up at work.  

Further, when I call those who allegedly work full time but at home during the workday, they often let slip the fact that they’re not working. I’ve been told, “let me turn down the TV” or “sorry I didn’t answer right away, I was out in the garden.”  

Those who want to work from home insist they’re afraid they’ll catch COVID if they return to our worksite. I’ve tried to address those concerns. We have safety protocols in place. We maintain tight limits on the number of customers allowed to enter our facility and screen them before they enter. To date, no employee has contracted COVID.

One employee, who claims to be especially scared, just submitted a fifteen-day leave request, explaining she’s flying to an East Coast city and then joining a cruise. I call BS. She plans to travel on a plane and cruise ship, but is afraid she’ll contract COVID at work? How do I handle this?  


The Society for Human Resource Management’s research documents that 52 percent of 1000 U.S. employees would choose to permanently work from home on a full-time basis if provided that option.1

Why they don’t want to come back.

Employees have genuine COVID-19 concerns, given the number of unvaccinated individuals, those who regularly let their masks slip below their nose, and the variants now spreading across the country.

Other employees don’t want to give up the freedom they’ve experienced working from home. Still others, after a year of being stretched thin and unable to balance child and workplace demands, have decided work isn’t as important as they viewed it pre-COVID.

Some of the above employees use COVID-related fears as an excuse, shielding them from an employer asking them to return to the worksite.

Legal parameters

The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act protects employees who refuse to work if they reasonably believe fear that working would place them in imminent danger. For an employee to prove this to a regulatory body or jury, the employee needs to prove s/he has a specific fear of infection, and not a generalized fear of contracting COVID-19.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees who have an underlying medical condition that places them at greater risk for contracting COVID-19. Employers need to accommodate these employees with remote work or changes to the work environment to reduce contact with others, such as using Plexiglas separators or other barriers between workstations.

If a health care provider has advised an employee to self-quarantine because of high vulnerability to COVID-19, that employee may be eligible for telework or paid or unpaid sick leave.

Employer actions

Employers are allowed to state, “we’re ending work from home on ‘x’ date, unless an employee has an approved exemption”. Given the morale consequences, you need to make a case for why you’re requiring a return to the workplace, and how you’ll protect your employees’ safety.

Ask each employee reluctant to return to outline her/her specific concerns. Listen. Then ask yourself if you’ve effectively addressed those concerns for this and other employees. If the employee identifies additional steps you need to take, such as better ventilation, capacity limits, increased sanitation, Plexiglas shields, or screening everyone entering your facility for COVID, take them.

Your case for requiring the bulk of employees to return includes that your organization serves customers, productivity has dropped, and you want to ensure fairness to the employees willing to return. A return to the workplace allows better collaboration among employees, easier access to equipment, files and supplies, and a closer connection between managers, employees, and coworkers, all of which drive employee productivity and morale.  

As you chart your organization’s path forward, remember that we’re still in a global pandemic, employee fears are legitimate, and employers need to take them seriously. Additionally, many employees want or need flexible work arrangements, and working parents can’t easily return to the office when schools remain closed.    

You’ve called BS on your traveler and you may be right. Can you lawfully fire an employee who refuses to return to work? If you’ve explored your employee’s reasons and have deemed them invalid, continued refusal to return may be a misconduct issue meriting termination or furlough. You may want to check with an attorney first to ensure you’re not overlooking any of your employee’s legal rights.

Elephant in the room

One of my friends, Ky Holland, responded this morning to the above, with this truth: “A majority, of American workers were already fed up with their bosses and their jobs. Employers reactions and pressuring workers to return risk only exacerbating the divide between worker job satisfaction and employers expectation. Shouldn’t the first question an employer facing reluctant employees be, is why is their work place not a desirable, rewarding place to be?

“Employers need to hit a reset and think about a new normal, not returning to the old normal that wasn’t working anyway. My view is the pandemic has ripped the covering off of long standing problems in our workforce… and the government’s ‘hold your breath until it’s quickly over’ failure to respond to the pandemic with resources to build a new-normal, has shielded employers and government from realizing there were problems before the pandemic.

“If we don’t face this reality and do the hard work of building a new normal, including inviting and rewarding jobs and work environments, we will only further slow a return to full the potential of our economy and the new opportunities ahead.”

Posts where I’ve focused on this elephant include “No Love Lost: Employees Head for the Doors,” “Worn out. Skeptical, Disengaged,” “5 Action Steps for Regaining Trust,”

1SHRM: Half of Workers Wish to Remain Remote Permanently

Here’s an open invitation: I’d love to hear from other blog visitors on this topic:)

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4 thoughts on “Employees Push Back Against Returning to Work & The Elephant in the Room

  1. While I do believe some people may still have high levels of fear around COVID, the fact that so many people are now vaccinated and the infection rate is dropping should be reassuring for many. I think a lot of people simply don’t want to return to the old normal. They don’t want to commute, they don’t want to get dressed up, and they believe (correctly or not) that they’ve been effective working from home. I think some people probably have been effective working from home, especially people who work in IT or other positions whose jobs are largely computer based anyway and often require them to work on their own. But other jobs don’t have that luxury, and some people simply could not be productive with all the distractions and lack of supervision at home. One thing the employer might ask about the people watching TV or gardening is “are they working after hours?”. I think some people do goof off some during the day, but also don’t mind working at night after the kids are in bed and the house is quiet. Before judging them as slackers, it might be worth checking computer logs, email time stamps, etc to see if perhaps those people are putting in hours later in the day. I definitely think the employee getting ready to go on a cruise has no legitimate claim to fearing COVID. No one with genuine concern of COVID would vacation right now by flying and then boarding a cruise ship.

    1. Dee, completely agree. I’m one of the one who wouldn’t want to return to the old normal. And I can be productive. I can also happily waste time.
      The employers who called or wrote me seemed to have the employees on board who wasted time and then alleged that they produced for 8 hours, but the employer didn’t see the results. Some people cannot work remote. Some can. The employers who called me seemed caught in a vise with the need for productivity on one handle and employees who aren’t productive but want full wages on the other handle.

  2. A thirty-minute commute! Try 3-hour commutes. I live south of city and the job is north of the city. I fight my way through the limited, jammed routes because of the geography. My tough luck, right? I could afford a house in the south on one income compared to the million dollar 1 bathroom houses in town. Then they tell us there are 80-hour weeks coming up. On salary, I’m SOL.


  3. These are great specific insights. One point I keyed in on was that an employee needs to be able to demonstrate a specific fear, danger about contracting COVID, not merely generalized fear — which, if we’re being honest about what we do not yet know or understand about this virus and its evolving variants, we all ought to have. The idea of asking employees about their concerns and worries and then discussing that with them sees worthwhile and a real show of concern for them while trying to establish the need for them to come back.

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