What to Do If COVID-19 Makes You Feel Unsafe at Work
Welcome to COVID Questions, TIME’s guidance column. We’re attempting to make enduring the pandemic a little simpler, with expert-backed response to your hardest coronavirus-related issues. While we can’t as well as 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, Robert from Virginia asks:
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.