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As New York Plans to Enter Phase 2, What Can Employees Expect When They Return to Work

What can New York City employees expect when they return to work in the coming weeks? The answer is easy…they can expect a whole new world. Of course, some employers are going to continue to allow their employees to work remotely for the indefinite future.

For example, on May 21, 2020, Facebook said that it would allow many employees to work from home permanently. Mark Zuckerberg Facebook’s chief executive, told workers during a staff meeting that was live-streamed on his Facebook page that within a decade as many as half of the company’s more than 48,000 employees would work from home.

“It’s clear that Covid has changed a lot about our lives, and that certainly includes the way that most of us work,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “Coming out of this period, I expect that remote work is going to be a growing trend as well.”

Google and Microsoft made similar announcements.

For employers that want their employees to go back to the office, employees can expect a number of changes such as staggered shifts to (1) allow employees to safely get into the office and bypass crowds on public transportation for example and (2) to ensure social distancing while in the office.

Some employees can expect to find differences in the layout of their offices as some workplaces have been reconfigured to enforce social distancing and keep employees at least 6 feet apart. Employees may find that common area such as breakrooms and lunchrooms are temporarily closed to limit close contact between employees and/or limited to only a certain number of workers in staggered shifts.

Employees can expect to be screened for COVID-19 exposure and symptoms per New York law. Employers may do temperature checks in a confidential and non-discriminatory way. If an employee refuses that employee may not be permitted into the office.

Employees can be expected to wear masks and possibly other PPE. If an employee has an underlying medical condition that makes wearing a mask or other PPE problematic, a conversation with the employer about a reasonable accommodation would be in order.

Employees can be expected to be sent home if they are sick. In fact, employees should not be going to work if they are sick or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. State and Federal paid leave laws are available for the 14 day quarantine period.

Many employees fear to leave the safety of their homes where they have been working remotely for months. Fear is not a legal reason to refuse to come to work if the company is lawfully permitted to open. However, if a worker is concerned about an existing health condition or disability like having a compromised immune system, that concern might fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act or state or local disability laws. A conversation with the employer about potential accommodations would be in order.

Workers who feel unsafe because of a specific concern at work, such as an employer not adequately cleaning a desk of a worker who tested positive for Covid-19 should make a complaint under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. OSHA requires employers to provide a work environment "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."

These are only some of the considerations and questions that have arisen now that New Yorkers are getting ready to go back to work. The attorneys at Schwartz Perry & Heller are uniquely equipped to address any concerns employees have about their safety and human rights as the economy reopens.

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