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'My Office Is Reopening, but I Don't Feel Safe Going Back'

How to navigate the tension between personal safety and what workplaces are asking of us.
June 10, 2020, 2:00pm
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Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.

I've been working from home since the beginning of the pandemic. My job, in general, has been understanding. They've been communicating to us that there isn't a "hard date" that we're expected back in the office, but recently they completely flipped that stance and now expect us all back at the top of next month.

My husband is immunocompromised and I don't want to risk his health, but I feel really betrayed and really backed into a corner by my job.

I'm not sure if I have ground to stand on to fight this, but I'm not sure if I have protection if I'm forced out, or if I would be denied unemployment benefits. I'm pretty sure if I do try to raise this issue, regardless of whether I have other co-workers backing me, I will be told to deal with this because they can replace me with a slew of other newly unemployed people, and trying to find a job now feels incredibly daunting.

Do I just suck it up and risk my husband's health and stay at a job I'm pretty sure can survive another wave, or do I try to find a new job now and become expendable when the next wave hits?

You have a lot of company in this awful boat. My inbox has been filled with letters from people facing the same terrible choice: Do I keep my job in a crappy job market, or do I protect myself and the people I live with?

Many employers are re-opening too soon, long before the benchmarks set by public health experts have been met (often even while local virus cases are increasing rather than decreasing). But there are things you can try in your situation.

First, talk with your employer. Explain that your husband is immunocompromised and high-risk, and that you’d put him in danger by returning to the office right now. Ask if it’s possible to continue to work from home, offer to provide medical documentation if they want it, and point to how effectively you’ve been doing your job remotely these last few months. (Whether to make this request of your manager or to start with HR depends on your sense of how reasonable and flexible each of them is.) With a decent employer, this could be enough! A lot of employers that are re-opening are making exceptions for people in your situation, but you have to know to ask.

If you were the high-risk person instead of your husband, you’d have some legal standing to push the issue. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), you’d be able to request telework as a reasonable accommodation during the pandemic. (That doesn’t mean your employer would have to agree, but they’d be required to have a dialogue with you about what accommodations would work for your situation.) But unfortunately, the law’s protections only cover you; they don’t apply if your spouse is the one at high risk.

So, where does that leave you if you make the request and your company refuses? Well, you can try pushing back with a group of co-workers; you’re probably not the only one in this situation, and even co-workers who aren’t would likely support you. A group of employees pushing for a change can be much harder to ignore than one employee on their own. Plus, if you act as a group, you get the protection of the National Labor Relations Act, which says employers can’t penalize groups of workers who speak out about working conditions.

If your employer still refuses, at that point you’d need to decide if you’re willing to keep the job under these terms or not. (If you do decide you’re going to quit over it, though, let your employer know that first—because it’s possible that will spur them to try to keep you. Just make sure you’re not bluffing, because they may just accept your resignation.)

Unfortunately, you’re right that in most states you won’t be eligible for unemployment benefits if you quit for this reason, so it likely would come down to how long how you could live without the income from this job, how long you think it would take to find a new job (something especially hard to predict right now with so many people out of work and job-searching), and how likely that job would be to let you work remotely. It’s a horrible choice to have to make.

It’s also true, of course, that many people—essential workers and others whose workplaces haven’t closed—have been dealing with this choice from the start. But it can feel particularly unreasonable when you’ve already been doing your job from home and can point to that working well, and your employer still won’t let you protect yourself and your family members.

Get more good advice from Alison Green at Ask a Manager or in her book**. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using** this form**.**

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