As the coronavirus continues to spread, many employers are allowing and encouraging employees to work from home. This is also called “telecommuting” or “teleworking.” Reducing the number of on-site workers gathered together in indoor workspaces can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other seasonal health issues. But do you have a right to work from home?
Benefits of Telecommuting for Employees and Employers
Working from home can help you comply with the social distancing and hygiene practices that the Center for Disease Control recommends to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Your risk is especially high if your workplace environment does not allow workers to maintain at least 6’ of distance from each other, does not have good ventilation systems, and cannot take appropriate precautions to prevent workers from interacting or having close contact with others. Allowing work-from-home programs can help employers prevent the spread of this virus to their workers and clients.
Telecommuting can provide numerous other benefits to both employers and workers. According to a 2015 research review reported by the American Psychological Association, telecommuting increased job satisfaction, overall performance, and employee feelings of commitment to their organization while reducing work stress and exhaustion. For employers, the benefits include better retention of employees, lower overhead, and the ability to recruit talent without being limited by geographic constraints. Working from home may also be a reasonable accommodation for workers with disabilities protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Does an Employer Have to Allow Working from Home?
Some employers, however, do not offer their employees the choice to work from home and have not altered their policies to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. While not all jobs can be effectively performed remotely, other employers are simply choosing not to allow their workers to telecommute. Do you have a right to work from home to protect yourself and your coworkers from the health risks of COVID-19?
Unfortunately, in general, the answer is “no.” United States federal law does not provide a right for an employee to work from home, although some states have proposed such laws to protect employees during the current pandemic. However, there are some legal protections that may allow you to avoid reporting to work in person due to coronavirus-related health concerns.
Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA
Most employers are subject to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that a company provide “reasonable accommodations” to its work environment or company policies to help someone with a covered disability perform the duties of a job or otherwise enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment. An employer does not have to allow accommodations that would cause "undue hardship,” that is, those which would be significantly financially burdensome, unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or which would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business.
Working from home may be a reasonable accommodation in some circumstances, and medical conditions or disabilities related to the coronavirus may qualify for ADA protection. After an individual informs their employer about a medical condition that interferes with their ability to do a job, the parties then engage in an “interactive process” to propose potential accommodations. The accommodations must allow the employee to perform the essential functions of their job without causing undue hardship for the employer. Allowing an individual with a COVID-19 related health limitation or disability to work from home may be a reasonable accommodation even if the employer does not allow other employees to telework.
Staying Home Without Working from Home
As of December 27, 2021, the CDC advises that COVID-19-positive individuals should isolate for 5 days. Those who are asymptomatic or have resolving symptoms (without fever for 24 hours) should then wear masks for 5 days around others to reduce the risk of transmission. The guidelines differ depending on vaccination status. This can be difficult or impossible, however, if their employer does not allow them to work from home.
Some employees may be able to use short-term disability coverage or accumulated paid sick leave/PTO for this time off. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may allow some employees with coronavirus or related medical conditions or those closely caring for others with medical conditions to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
If you have a medical condition or disability related to COVID-19, have concerns about returning to an unsafe workplace, or want to petition your employer for a work-from-home accommodation under the ADA, contact an experienced employment attorney in your area. The attorneys at the Mark Law Firm can evaluate New Jersey employment law matters, ADA issues, and claims under FMLA and other protected leave.
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