Do I Have to Go Back to Work in an Office When California Opens Up?

August 25, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people shop, socialize, and work. One question that many people have is if they need to go back to work in an office after your county in California opens back up. What are your rights? If you’re not certain it’s safe to return to work in a busy office, can your employer fire you? Can you be forced to work with others if you’re uncomfortable?

California has seen close to 400,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 7,600 deaths as of July 20, 2020. You’re going to be nervous about returning to work after the stay-home order of March 19th. Some reopenings were allowed, but between July 1st and July 13th, the number of counties on the monitoring list went from 19 to 32. The virus isn’t over.

What was once normal just isn’t normal anymore. We’re in a new normal. As all of this is new to you, and it’s new to your employer. You do need to work with your bosses. They have regulations to follow, so your fears of COVID-19 may be eased when you learn what your company plans to do to keep workers safe.

California’s Labor Code Regarding Unsafe Work

California does have a law that protects you from “unsafe work.” What qualifies as “unsafe” is up for debate in terms of the pandemic. The State of California, Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) is there to make sure California’s employees have a safe, healthy work environment. Cal/OSHA requires employers to recognize hazardous working conditions and correct them.

The orders of the State Public Health Officer are important. This specialist sets guidelines for closures and reopenings. If your employer is trying to reopen and is one of the industries told to remain closed in your county, you cannot be forced to return to work. You might be allowed to return to work one day and have to close back down if there’s another outbreak, and businesses need to be aware of that in these challenging times.

For example, in a county that is on the California Department of Public Health’s County Monitoring List and has been on that list for at least three consecutive days, your office may not be allowed to reopen yet. Just because a competitor in another county is allowed to reopen, if your employer is in a listed county, you cannot go back to the office.

Per California laws, you are protected from being forced to perform hazardous work if:

  1. That work violates Cal/OSHA regulations.
  2. The violation is a “real and apparent hazard” for you and/or your co-workers.

If you feel those two statements are true and fit your situation, you need to talk to your supervisor and ask for the issue/s to be fixed. Let him/her know what you feel is a violation. State that you will continue working if you’re reassigned to another area or the issues are corrected. If you’re in a union, contact your union steward, too.

If they ignore your complaint, call an attorney who specializes in employment law or contact Cal/OSHA. Your employer cannot retaliate against you. If anyone does, it’s a violation that you should also see a lawyer over.

Using that knowledge, if you were told to return to work and your employer does not way anyone to use face masks, has no plan for regular sanitizing and disinfecting, and has desks crowded together, you might have a valid complaint that it’s an unsafe work environment. If your employer is taking steps to space desks at least six feet apart, making everyone wear masks, and has cleaners disinfecting the plant each day, the employer is following the laws. You won’t have much of an argument.

What Does Your Doctor Say?

If your doctor recommends you stay at home due to a chronic health condition that puts you at a higher risk of serious symptoms if you contracted COVID-19, you can go to your employee with a doctor’s note. With this paperwork in hand, you could remain on unemployment insurance and stay at home until the pandemic ends or there’s a vaccination available.

The State’s Checklist for Reopenings

For a business to reopen, California has a checklist to follow. For most industries, there has to be a written plan for employees to follow. Risk assessments and measures that stop the spread, such as taking temperatures before entering the building, are important. If COVID is detected, the local health department must be notified. Masks are recommended. Facilities or offices must be cleaned and sanitized between workers/shifts, hand sanitizing products must be available to all employees, breaks need to be staggered, and hands-free sinks, toilets, and soap dispensers should be used.

Guidelines vary and employers and employees need to understand what their employer needs to do when the company reopens. You can find the checklists at Covid19.ca.gov. Your employer should be following that list. If they’re not, it’s time to ask a supervisor what the plans are for the criteria that are being ignored or overlooked.

What If You Go Back to Work and There’s an Infection

What happens if you do return to the office and someone has the virus? You would then have an argument to work from home, if possible, until any areas that person was in have been deep cleaned. You might be offered an alternative through a transfer to another area or building. They do not have to tell you the name of the person who has the virus, but they do have to let you know someone tested positive. You should think about being tested as a precaution. Testing shouldn’t cost you anything, so don’t let worries about the cost keep you from being tested.

Until there is a vaccine that works effectively, employees and employers are all in the same boat. It’s a confusing, stressful time. Make sure you’re discussing your concerns and taking precautions. If you are older or in a high-risk category that makes COVID-19 a greater risk, talk to your doctor and then to your employer.

Your employer is not obligated to keep you on the staff if you don’t agree to return to the office and it’s allowed. You may find that your employer is willing to work with you, however. Facing negative publicity or having to find and train new employees under the current pandemic will not be easy. Many employers would prefer to not add something else to an already stressful situation.

If you are forced to return to the office and your employer is not taking steps to create a safe work environment, talk to an attorney that specializes in employment law. Shegerian Conniff provides free consultations, so you can find out if you have a valid complaint without risking any of your hard-earned money. Give us a call and we’ll let you know if you have a case. We’re here to help you through every step of the complaint, investigation, and court hearings if it comes to that.