Ask HR: Can I Stay Home from Work Because of Coronavirus?

 

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP March 13, 2020
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SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP

SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA TODAYThe questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.


Question: If I refused to come to work because of the coronavirus, could my employer fire me? - Anonymous

The short, and perhaps surprising, answer to your question is yes. Since nearly all states are employment-at-will jurisdictions, you are likely required to work—unless you have a reasonable basis to believe your workplace is unsafe.

That basis will depend on the specifics, such as if this outbreak worsens, if there are confirmed cases in your area, or if you have been exposed to someone who has traveled to, or been exposed to someone from, such an area.

Absent those conditions, I'd advise against refusing to work simply because a co-worker exhibits coronavirus symptoms. After all, these symptoms are very similar to the flu and other common sicknesses. In addition, we're still learning how it spreads, and we're still not sure of its exact incubation period, according to the CDC.

That said, the "what if" you proposed is an extreme example employers want to avoid as well. In fact, many are already managing coronavirus concerns by implementing best practices, such as:

  • Sending employees exhibiting symptoms of a communicable disease home;
  • Allowing employees to work remotely or to take paid sick leave, even if they don't normally offer it;
  • Encouraging good hygiene practices to prevent the spread of disease, such as washing hands, sneezing or coughing into your elbow, and making sure commonly touched areas, are sanitized. 

Hopefully, your employer is already enacting or considering these approaches to keep employees healthy and safe. Are you aware of your employer's plans for coronavirus? If not, I would suggest reaching out to HR to see what plans and policies are in place for responding to this outbreak.

Whether it's a biological threat or natural disaster, crises can be challenging. It's important to alert people and prepare for the worst but so is staying calm and refraining from hysteria.

Keep healthy, stay informed, and we can contain and overcome this virus. While the headlines can be frightening, it's important to recall SARs and the H1N1 flu: This, too, will pass.

 

Question: Can my employer make me work through lunch? I work in downtown Los Angeles, so there are a lot of food options nearby. However, my boss always tells me to eat at my desk, even if I go out to grab food. It's basically company policy to eat and work at the same time, even when it's really nice out! It's not like I'm trying to eat out for hours at a time, but it would be nice to step outside every once and a while. – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I get it. Sitting behind a desk all day can be mundane.

But the reality is every workplace culture is different. Some may allow leisurely, off-site lunches, while others might require employees to stay close by.

There's no federal law requiring workplaces to provide lunch breaks. However, some states do have meal period laws. For instance, employers in California must provide a 30-minute meal period and relieve them of all duty—but that's only for hourly employees. If that law isn't being followed, you should let HR know.

Now, if you are salaried employee, that doesn't leave you out of luck. Since this is a question of workplace culture, I recommend meeting with your boss to talk things over.

Share your interest in getting out of the office and highlight how more freedom during lunchtime could help both you and the bottom line.

Mention the positive benefits, such as improved mood and wellness, and explain how these outcomes could increase productivity and engagement across your entire team.

This approach is persuasive for at least two reasons. It gives your boss the opportunity to help you (most people like to help) and shape your culture in a way that helps your company, too.  It's also a reasonable request—one I would expect to be accommodated in at least some respect.

Lastly, pay attention to your tone, message, and appearance—it will increase your chances of a positive outcome.

Be positive, natural, and relaxed; don't be negative, scripted, and tense. After all, you're not there to complain. You're bringing your boss a good idea that could be great for your organization!

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