In the last few weeks, millions of people worldwide have started to return to work after a period of home-working amidst the Coronavirus lockdown. With the idea that, at some point, we all must get back to normal, certain businesses and offices have re-opened for staff to resume working in a more familiar environment, with social distancing in place for many. However, with individual states in the USA all operating under different rules from each other, and with the official advice in the United Kingdom still being to ‘work from home, if you can’, not everyone is on their way back into the office.
But at what point do we need to go back to our traditional workplace? If we have been able to work from home all this time, do we necessarily have to get back to the office at all? Or should I continue to work from home after the lockdown has lifted?
Should I be back at work already?
Whilst the closure of many workplaces was government-enforced in both the United States and the United Kingdom, their re-opening seems to be a lot more at the business owner’s discretion.
In the United Kingdom, with advice stating that you should only use public transport if you have no other option, many city-based companies are still allowing employees to work from home for their own safety, as infection rates are higher among those who use trains, buses or the Underground.
There are also many companies who rely on the trade of other businesses in order to operate fully, such as those working in advertising and marketing. With many small businesses and stores remaining closed, there isn’t the demand for advertising or marketing that there was before the pandemic, meaning that many companies don’t yet have the need for their staff to be working in the office at full capacity – many are still, instead, working from home at reduced hours.
For that reason, you may know several people who have gone back to work as normal, while you or others that you know are still unsure as to when their own return-to-work date will be.
Is my employer allowed to ask us to return to work while much of the state/country is still on lockdown?
Again, this comes down to both the current lockdown rules in your state/country, as well as the needs of the business you work for in states/countries where you are now allowed to return to work as normal.
If your employer asks you to return to work, and you aren’t sure whether or not this aligns with the current lockdown rules where you live, be sure to go online and double-check what businesses are and are not currently allowed to operate as normal.
For instance, in the United Kingdom, many businesses in which the employees have the ability to work from home are now allowed to operate as normal, while those working in stores, restaurants, tourism, etc. are still entitled to receive 80% of their usual pay via the UK Furlough wage scheme, despite being unable to work.
However, despite offices being given the green light to re-open, the advice is still to work from home if you can. Once again, whether or not you are asked to return to your usual working office, in this case, is at the discretion of your employer.
See also our article SHOULD I ASK TO WORK REMOTELY?
What if I’m self-employed, but my line of work is heavily affected by the lockdown?
If you work from home as standard but have had your business or line of work effected by the lockdown or in response to the pandemic, you may be able to receive financial help, yet continue to work in whichever capacity you still can.
In the UK, self-employed workers who have had their business affected by Coronavirus are still eligible to claim a Government grant, capped at £7,500, through the gov.uk website. The deadline to apply for this first grant is July 13th, with a second not being available until August, so check the gov.uk website as soon as possible if you believe you may be eligible.
In the United States, financial aid for the self-employed is available but varies by state. You may be entitled to claim under the CARES act, which offers checks of up to $1,200 per self-employed person. For more information, check your state’s unemployment website.
Even if my company is allowed to operate as normal, can I still work from home?
If you are asked to return to work, and your company is currently legally allowed to operate as normal, you can still refuse to return under certain circumstances.
In the United Kingdom, you are legally entitled to take time off work to look after any dependents, such as children or vulnerable family members. However, this time is typically unpaid. If you have been paid under the government Furlough scheme, your employer may allow this continues, but that is at their discretion.
If you have no dependents but believe that returning to work could put you or vulnerable members of your household at risk, you can refuse to go back. However, there is no law in place to stop your employer from dismissing you because of this. If this does happen, you may have a case for unfair dismissal, but only if you have good reason to believe that there could have been serious or imminent danger in your returning to work.
The rules are similar in the United States. Again, if you believe that returning to work could pose a serious and imminent danger to you, then dismissal from your employer would likely be found to be unlawful. However, this may vary depending on the state, and again requires that you can provide a good reason for why a return to work could be so dangerous to you or those that you live with.
In any case, it is always worth doing your research and knowing your rights when being asked to return to work against your best interests. Detailed information about this is often easily accessible from most government websites and trusted news sources.