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Do I have to go back to work? Delta variant of coronavirus breeds concerns

·5 min read

Ready, set, stop.

America's long-awaited return to working from the office – at least part of the time – was all set to begin in the next few weeks, culminating in something resembling normalcy around Labor Day.

That looks less likely amid growing concerns about the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, coupled with the fact that about 3 in 10 Americans still haven't gotten a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

About 1 in 4 Americans never worked from home during the pandemic, and about 1 in 5 had gone back to their cubicles as of May, and some went in occasionally, according to a Harris Poll survey provided exclusively to USA TODAY.

About 1 in 3 employees hadn't gone back. Many of them anxiously await word on whether they'll be required to return, encouraged to go back or told they can stay home for now.

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Here's what you need to know.

Can my boss force me back to the office during COVID-19?

In general, yes.

"Without a question, no doubt," said Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. "And many are doing that."

Employers have a lot of legal latitude to tell employees where to work. If they want you in the office, they can make you work there, as long as there are no state or local restrictions preventing it. If you don't like it, you can quit.

One exception: If you're represented by a union, terms negotiated in your labor contract may govern what your employer is allowed to require.

What would stop my employer from forcing me to return?

For starters, concerns about liability linger. If your boss forces you to go back and you contract COVID-19 because of it, you could sue. They don't want that. You might not win, but even the possibility of legal liability is enough to keep corporate lawyers awake at night.

Employers can face financial liabilities if they don’t implement safety measures to protect their workforce. Those liabilities include lawsuits, worker compensation claims or fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on a state or local level.

“Employers have a moral duty, some might argue, but definitely a legal duty to ensure they create a safe and healthy work environment,” said Angela Reddock-Wright, an employment attorney in Los Angeles.

Would threatening to quit matter?

It might. That doesn't mean you should do it since the economy remains unstable in some areas.

Concerns about hurting employee morale are a factor in employers' decisions on whether to bring people back. In various areas of the economy, there are severe labor shortages. The last thing your employer wants is for you to quit because they made you come back.

"If the will of your employee base is that they won’t do it, then you’ve got a problem because we’ve got a war for talent," Taylor said. "Everyone’s talking about the resignation tsunami. It’s real."

Can I negotiate an extension of remote work?

It might be worth trying. Amid labor shortages and employers' desire to keep their workforce happy, they may be willing to consider it.

“People will look at their own circumstances and say, ‘I understand why you have this policy, but I feel like I’m a very valuable employee and I can do this work from home,’” said Adam Galinsky, a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School.

Galinsky expects that in many cases, employers will allow their high performers to work from home if that's what they want.

"You’re going to see the higher status individuals that will be able to negotiate deals that will allow them to work remotely," he said. "It might actually become a status symbol to have remote work."

Will my employer require me to get vaccinated?

Some major employers have taken steps to do so, including New York City, California, The Washington Post and various health institutions. In many cases, they have exceptions, such as mandating regular coronavirus testing for anyone who refuses to get vaccinated. For some, it's not optional.

Another possibility is that your employer could require vaccination to work from the office.

Most employers, at least for now, strongly encourage but don't require vaccination.

Are they allowed to require vaccination?

Yes. Federal law is clear that employers can require vaccination. Court rulings have upheld that precedent.

"Definitely from a legal perspective, employers can mandate it, can require it and I think we are going to see more employers doing that," Reddock-Wright said.

Will I have to wear a mask at work?

The CDC's initial guidance was that anyone who is vaccinated would not have to mask. After the delta variant surged among unvaccinated people, the agency changed its guidance this week to urge masks for everyone in COVID-19 hot spots, regardless of vaccination status.

That could mean your employer would require you to wear a mask at work, depending on where you're located.

"Employers have an obligation under (law) to address, if not eliminate, to significantly remediate known hazards," Taylor said.

Instead of requiring you to mask up at work, employers may extend your remote-work situation until cases subside. Bloomberg reported that Apple delayed its return at least a month until October.

You can follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter here for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Delta variant sparks COVID work concern: Can employer make you return?