Man returning to work

Handling Employees Fearful of Returning to the Workplace

As stay-at-home orders are lifted and workplaces across the nation reopen, HR professionals face a new challenge unique to the pandemic: handling employees who are fearful of returning due to COVID-19.

First, let’s make sure everyone’s on the same page. Whether you’re already back, plan on returning to the workplace soon, or remote work has been working just fine for your organization, consider CDC guidelines and recommendations when making any and all decisions.

Accommodating your employees’ refusals to return is not black and white. To further complicate the issue, federal and state officials have offered little guidance on the matter. For legal and morale reasons, HR leaders need to handle employees refusing to return carefully.

SVP, Compliance and General Counsel Katy Stowers offers her take on handling employees fearful of returning to the workplace in this video.

Options for your organization

If telework is possible for your organization, officials recommend adhering to social distancing protocols to accommodate the fear of infection. However, if remote work is not a viable option, you should consider the following:

If any employee references an underlying medical condition that makes him/her high risk 

You can allow telework to continue without documentation. If telework is not an option, you must ask for documentation to determine whether the person is “regarded as disabled” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If documentation supports an underlying condition that would put the employee at higher risk, you will then need to make a reasonable accommodation (e.g. telework) to allow the employee to continue working, so long as that accommodation does not cause undue business hardship. Note that there is no ADA accommodation requirement for a family member with conditions that put them at high risk.

If any employee does not have a health condition requiring ADA accommodation but refuses to return to work due to fear of COVID-19 infection

You may still offer telework in this situation, but if remote work is not a feasible option for your organization, you can put the employee on an unpaid leave. If you choose this route, contact your advisor to ensure that the appropriate language and approvals are in place to allow continued coverage under the benefit plans. Finally, you have the option of terminating an employee who refuses to return. At this point there is no requirement that you continue employment or hold the employee’s position.

It’s critical that your HR leadership is consistent and compassionate in communicating and administering your return-to-work policies. Remote telework is certainly the compassionate approach, consistent with the CDC’s and the Indiana State Department of Health’s social distancing protocols. Almost overnight, First Person adopted digital remote work, a successful strategy for a majority of organizations with whom we work.

If you have any questions, concerns or comments about handling employees who are fearful of returning to work, please contact your advisor or our COVID-19 Task Force of subject matter experts. Our team is ready and willing to help you adopt a strategy that works for your business and people.

As always, access our COVID-19 Resource Hub for the latest articles, videos, infographics and other content related to HR strategy during the pandemic.


Hello, this is Katy Stowers, Senior Vice President of Compliance and General Counsel at First Person.

As we talk with employers who are returning to the workplace now that stay-at-home orders have lifted, we are hearing that one claim that’s coming up consistently is that there are some employees who don’t want to return to the workplace because they fear the COVID-19 infection.

As you know, the CDC, Indiana State Department of Health and other agencies are certainly recommending that if telecommuting remains possible, that that’s what should be done. Keep that social distance if possible. But if it’s not feasible for your business to do that, you really have to consider these requests under a couple different scenarios.

First, if the employee claims that they have a health condition that makes them high risk should they get the COVID-19 infection, then you need to have a process in place for determining whether you can give them ADA accommodation.

Second, if the employee doesn’t have a high risk condition or if they’re fearful of a family member getting infected, you don’t have to go down the route of the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can, in fact, consider teleworking to address those fears. But if that’s not feasible for your business, your options are an unpaid leave of absence or termination of that employee’s employment.

As of current, there is no regulatory requirement to continue employment if someone refuses to return and it’s not feasible for your business to accommodate telework.

What’s most important is to have a consistent and compassionate policy for addressing these claims of your employees, so you’re able to both run your business and maintain your culture.

If you have any questions about this issue, please feel free to reach out to me, Katy Stowers at First Person, and I’ll be glad to assist.

Thanks for listening, and have a great day.

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