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Employees Still Afraid To Come Back To Work During COVID-19?

By Laura Pokrzywa, HR Consultant, East Coast Risk Management Anxious Employee

As businesses begin opening their doors again following COVID-19, it certainly doesn’t feel like “business as usual.” Amplified sanitation practices, facial coverings, and ubiquitous social distancing reminders are making some uneasy, while speculation about a second wave of illnesses has others on edge. It’s no wonder that some of your employees may be afraid to return to the workplace following a business closure or furlough. So, what can you do?

Start with the essentials:

Prepare the workplace properly:  Be sure you are following all CDC and OSHA guidance regarding sanitation and social distancing in the workplace. Know the current orders for your location (state and local) regarding facial coverings and masks. Make sure you have all the cleaning supplies and protective equipment your employees will need.

Keep employees informed:  Tell them what you are doing to keep them safe. Make sure they know what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. Give clear guidance with memos, training, and signage, wherever needed. Don’t forget, your state may have required workplace postings related to COVID-19.  For example, here is a poster required for Pennsylvania businesses that elect to maintain in-person operations.

What If Employees Are Still Afraid to Return?

Start with understanding. This has been and continues to be a difficult time for everyone.  Fear and uncertainty have overturned all sense of normalcy. A little understanding will go a long way. Take the time to listen to your employees’ concerns and address them as individuals.

Find out what is at the root of their fear. Is the employee concerned about the risk to their own health due to an underlying medical issue? Do they live with someone who is at risk and fear bringing it home? Maybe the whole situation is aggravating a pre-existing anxiety disorder?

If the employee’s fear is based on their own underlying medical condition, that could trigger legal obligations under disability discrimination laws. If you have 15 or more employees, you are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, many states have similar laws that cover employers with less than 15 employees. Either way, the best practice right now would be to consider the possibility of an accommodation that will help your employee return safely.

If your employee has an anxiety disorder that has been stoked by the pandemic, that too could be considered a disability under those laws. Again, you will need to engage in the interactive process with that employee to determine if you can offer a reasonable accommodation that will ease their mind and help them return to work.

Consider these options or accommodations:

  • Can your employee work from home or some other remote location?
  • Can your employee’s work schedule, workstation, or work assignments be modified to allow less contact with other employees or customers?
  • Would a leave of absence be the best approach for your employee?

These are new waters for everyone. You will need to consider each concern on a case-by-case basis. Just remember to be consistent with your decisions.

Don’t forget OSHA.

For most workplaces, COVID-19 may be a general risk… but, probably no more so than it is in any public location. However, if COVID-19 poses an “imminent danger” in your workplace (such as it might in the healthcare industry), your employee may be able to refuse to return according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidance. OSHA says an employee may refuse an assignment that involves “a risk of death or serious physical harm” under certain conditions. If you have questions about OSHA requirements and employee rights, you can talk with one of our Safety Professionals by calling 724-864-8745.

What If Employees STILL Don’t Want To Return?

Let’s say you’ve followed CDC and OSHA guidance to the letter as you’ve prepared the workplace. Not only that, but your communications with employees have been exemplary. You even have even been generous and creative with accommodations for those who requested them. However, despite all that effort, you still may have employees who do not want to return to work. Some may refuse to come back right now due to an overwhelming fear, even without any pre-existing medical concerns. While others may resist being called back to work based on an erroneous assumption that they can stay home and continue to collect the increased unemployment compensation now available.

For more information about this scenario and other concerns, see our Reopening for Business After the Coronavirus Shutdown – FAQ, posted to our blog on May 6.



For more info about issues employers are facing as they reopen during the coronavirus outbreak, click here to listen to the latest episode of our new podcast, Risk Management Roundtable! Listen as ECRM’s Human Resources Manager, Nancy Owen and ECRM’s Associate General Counsel, Ben Orsatti sit down with Marketing and Client Services Coordinator, Lisa Mason for a Q&A session. See below for a list of web resources discussed in the podcast. Click here to listen to more of our podcast episodes.



If you are an employer that has questions on any issue relating to human resources, safety, or workers’ compensation, contact East Coast Risk Management by calling 724-864-8745 or emailing us at

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