Can An Employer Fire Employees Who Refuse To Come Back to the Office?

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

As COVID restrictions ease, many employers are deciding whether to require employees who have been working remotely to come back to the office. So can an employer fire employees who refuse to come back to the office? Yes–with some important exceptions.

Let’s face it, we have learned over the past year that remote work has some advantages. No commute, no need to dress up and put on makeup very day (unless there is a Zoom meeting), no uncomfortable shoes, and you can fix your own pretty inexpensive lunch. And that super-chatty co-worker can’t stop by and take up your time with another story about his cats. But there are disadvantages as well. It’s hard to have a consistent corporate culture when employees are not in the same place. Employees may not feel connected to their co-workers because they don’t have the water cooler or break room conversations. Mental health issues have arisen for people who have felt lonely or isolated during remote work. And we cannot underestimate the value of face-time in furthering career advancement. The bottom line: some people thrive in a remote work setting, and some people don’t. Some people simply prefer to be in an office setting with co-workers.

If an employer decides that it wants employees back in the office, it can generally terminate employees who refuse to give up their remote work lifestyles; it is insubordination for an employee to refuse a reasonable directive of her/his employer. However, and this is a big however, if an employer is covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act, it may need to consider whether allowing a disabled employee to continue to work remotely is considered a reasonable accommodation. For example, in Massachusetts, a worker with asthma sued their employer regarding a work from home accommodation, and the federal district court allowed the case to go forward.

The success of remote work in the past year or so will make it more difficult for an employer to convince a court that working remotely is not a “reasonable” accommodation or that working at a particular location is an “essential function” of the job. It’s a good idea to consult an attorney in this situation.

Just because you CAN do something does not mean that you must do it. There are going to be some folks who feel so strongly about working remotely that they are willing to quit rather than return to the office. Or maybe they still don’t have reliable child care. Is it worth losing employees, especially valuable employees, over this issue? How easily will you be able to replace them?

And finally–if you want to avoid claims for discrimination on the basis of characteristics other than disability, you’d better have some valid, non-discriminatory reasons for allowing some employees to work remotely while others are required to go into the office. Don’t play favorites.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

Can You Require Your Employees to Be Vaccinated for COVID-19? Should You?

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By Kathleen Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

An FDA approved vaccine for COVID-19 has arrived, so employers may be wondering whether they can require employees to be vaccinated. The answer is generally yes, but should an employer make vaccines mandatory? Here are some important considerations and exemptions.

Considerations:

  • Vaccines are medical examinations under the ADA and, if they are to be required, must be job-related and consistent with business necessity or justified by a direct threat. It is a non-brainer that healthcare employers should make vaccines mandatory due to the potential exposure of employees to COVID-19. For other businesses, they will need to balance the possibility of exposure, consequences of exposure (how many employee absences at one time can the business tolerate?), and utility of the vaccine. Will a full complement of vaccinated employees allow you to resume business as usual?
  • Know your employees. How will they react to a mandatory vaccine rule? Will they comply? Are they likely to have a political objection to a mandatory vaccine rule? Will they rebel? Will they seek out a union organizer to help them rebel?
  • If vaccines are mandatory, will your workers’ compensation policy cover the side effects of a vaccine if an employee experiences a reaction? Check with your carrier. This will vary state to state.
  • What will OSHA require? Keep an eye on OSHA. If OSHA requires mandatory vaccines as part of an employer’s general duty to provide a safe workplace, then employers don’t have much choice; they’ll need to have a mandatory vaccine rule.
  • What will company leadership do? If the company’s leaders roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated as soon as possible, this will send a message to other employees.
  • Does state law require vaccines?
  • Do you have a collective bargaining agreement? If yes, it must be reviewed before implementing a mandatory vaccine rule. Even if the CBA does not require that the union agree to such a rule, it is generally a good idea to give advance notice to the union before implementing such a rule.

Exemptions:

An employer that implements a rule that requires employees to be vaccinated must build in exemptions for religion and disability.

Religion: An employee may be exempt from taking a required vaccine if vaccination violates a sincerely held religious belief. When deciding whether an employee is seeking an exemption based upon a simple disbelief in vaccination versus a religious objection that is part of a larger belief system, the courts look to the U.S. Supreme Court’s United States v. Seeger decision, which framed the the question to be asked as: “[D]oes the claimed belief occupy the same place in the life of the objector as an orthodox belief in God holds in the life of one clearly qualified for exemption?” Deep stuff, but it basically boils down to the difference between someone who does not believe in vaccination based on statements of media figures or a general distrust of authority, and a Christian Scientist. The first will not be exempt from a vaccination requirement, while the second will be exempt. Note that courts do not look favorably on seeking documentation from a pastor as to the sincerity of a person’s religious beliefs, so do not ask for it.

If an employee is exempt from a vaccination requirement on the ground of a sincerely held religious belief, the employer may need to look at making reasonable accommodations for that employee. In the case of COVID-19, that could look like social distancing and mask requirements in the proximity of the unvaccinated employee, or the employee may work remotely, if the job can be performed remotely.

Disability: Similarly, there may be employees who may be exempt from a vaccination requirement on the basis of a disability. They may have a serious allergy to a component of a vaccine, or they may suffer from a medical condition that could be worsened by a vaccination.

An employer can ask an employee seeking an exemption from a vaccination requirement on the basis of disability for medical documentation to support the exemption. Of course, all medical information must be maintained as confidential in a file separate from the employee’s personnel file. Similar to the situation of the employee exempted by religion, discussed above, the employer may need to provide a reasonable accommodation to the exempted disabled employee.

Now is the time for employers to prepare a vaccine plan as part of a larger COVID-19 strategy.

  • What approach are you going to use: are you going require vaccines for all employees, some employees, or none at all?
  • If you require vaccination, are you prepared to take action, up to including discharge, against those who refuse to get vaccinated and do not qualify for an exemption?
  • Will you offer incentives to convince employees to voluntarily get vaccinated?
  • How will you identify those who are legally exempted from vaccination?
  • What accommodations can you offer to those who are legally exempted from vaccination?

You’ve heard it a million times, but I’ll say it: the current pandemic is an unprecedented situation. The best course is to seek advice from qualified counsel as you move forward.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

©2020 Kathleen J. Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

Telecommuting as a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA: The Pandemic Trial Run

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In the times before COVID-19, there were people (like the author) who telecommuted, but we were definitely in the minority. Now, thanks to the pandemic, many more people have been working remotely, and doing so successfully. And according to some new EEOC Guidance, successful telecommuting could be considered something of a trial run for those employees who ask to work remotely after the pandemic as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

This is a new Q & A from the EEOC’s “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws:”

Q: Assume that prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, an employee with a disability had requested telework as a reasonable accommodation. The employee had shown a disability-related need for this accommodation, but the employer denied it because of concerns that the employee would not be able to perform the essential functions remotely. In the past, the employee therefore continued to come to the workplace. However, after the COVID-19 crisis has subsided and temporary telework ends, the employee renews her request for telework as a reasonable accommodation. Can the employer again refuse the request? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 22)

A: Assuming all the requirements for such a reasonable accommodation are satisfied, the temporary telework experience could be relevant to considering the renewed request. In this situation, for example, the period of providing telework because of the COVID-19 pandemic could serve as a trial period that showed whether or not this employee with a disability could satisfactorily perform all essential functions while working remotely, and the employer should consider any new requests in light of this information. As with all accommodation requests, the employee and the employer should engage in a flexible, cooperative interactive process going forward if this issue does arise.

In a nutshell: if an employee with a disability had requested telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation before COVID-19, and that request was denied on the grounds that the employer did not think telecommuting would be workable, and then that employee successfully telecommutes during the pandemic, now the employer may no longer have grounds to deny the telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation after all of this pandemic stuff is over. Why? Because the pandemic telecommuting operated as a “trial run” that showed that the employer’s initial concerns about teleworking may be unfounded. At a minimum, the employer cannot simply deny the request to work remotely on the ground that it was denied previously. Instead, the employer must work through the interactive process with the employee to determine what accommodation is reasonable.

Although I am always reminding employers to be consistent in their treatment of employees, this is an exception to that rule. An employer may need to treat a disabled employee differently from other employees because the disabled employee needs accommodations that other employees do not. The interactive process by which an employer, the disabled employee, and the employee’s health care provider discuss and decide upon a reasonable accommodation requires an individualized assessment of the employee’s abilities and needs.

The takeaway: The duty to provide reasonable accommodation is a fundamental statutory requirement under the ADA. An employer should respond expeditiously to a request for reasonable accommodation. If the employer and the individual with a disability need to engage in an interactive process, this too should proceed as quickly as possible.  Similarly, the employer should act promptly to provide the reasonable accommodation. Unnecessary delays can result in a violation of the ADA.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

©2020 Kathleen J. Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.