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Know Your Rights: Can employers require you to return to the office in person?

Published: Jun. 4, 2021 at 12:01 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 4, 2021 at 12:50 AM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - As COVID restrictions are set to lift soon in Kentucky, businesses and employees are beginning to make decisions about returning to the office.

Matt Stack and his employees at Stack Insurance have been working remotely since March 2020. While he said he misses the collaboration among the team in person, he told WAVE 3 News the flexibility has been nice.

“I think we’ve thrived through this and been just as efficient and I would think that our clients feel the same way,” he said.

Stack Insurance recently moved their office to a new building. Stack said they moved to an office with “less dedicated space and more shared space.”

“We’re now in a space that has a smaller office setting but when we need to meet clients we have much more shared conference room setting and things of that nature. So it’s been a win, win for us,” Stack said. “We just had an office that was being used as a storage space for months and months we just think this is a little bit better set up.”

Stack Insurance has four full-time employees. One of the employees was already permanently remote prior to the pandemic, so they learned from that and built on it.

He told WAVE 3 News they haven’t had a formal discussion about returning to the office full-time because things have worked so well for them working remotely.

“Whether you have the need for childcare or any reason there, it’s a nice benefit to have,” Stack said. “I think it’s a permanent part of our business moving forward and I think a lot of businesses are going to consider the same type of model.”

He said they’ll stick to working mainly remotely for now, but could see a hybrid model eventually put into practice.

UofL Law Professor Sam Marcosson explained how an employee’s rights are affected if an employer requests them to come back into the office.

“The general rule is they can say it is a requirement of the job to be present, to be in the workplace as we define it, and then we get to set the rules for when you can work in some other place whether that be from home or on the road, wherever you happen to be,” Marcosson said.

He said there are some exceptions to that rule, mainly medical reasons that would require you to work from home.

“The exceptions are important,” Marcosson said. “The exceptions are generally for people who have some reason, usually a medical disability, why they need to be working from home if they can show that it wouldn’t be a hardship for the employer to allow them to do so.”

However, Marcosson said someone’s fear of getting COVID, even if they’re fully vaccinated, might not be enough to stop them from being told to return to work in an office.

“Now, if the fear rises to the level of a disability such that it inhibits one or more of your major life activities, then you might be able to make that case,” Marcosson said. “But for the most part if you are required to be in the office and refuse to do so, that could be grounds for the employer to say you can’t meet the essential functions of this job and we need you to be in the office of whatever kind of workplace.”

Marcosson told WAVE 3 News, like mask and vaccine requirements, each employer has the right to decide what their requirements will be.

“I do think what we’re going to see are very different policies from different employers that run the gamut: from flexible, to rigid, to allowing people to work from home,” Marcosson said. “Because there has been a change in the workplace and in our conception of how you can get work done and where you can do it. I think a lot of employers, there’s been a sea change, and they won’t be going back to the way it used to be.”

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