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COVID-19 return-to-work: What employees, employers need to know

09 Aug 2021 7:44 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Gregory L. Walterhouse, Associate Teaching Professor, Bowling Green State University, IPSA Member

As employers are modifying or lifting work-at home orders, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Centers for Disease (CDC) control have issued guidance for both employers and employees. Universal precautions include social distancing as closer contact and longer interaction with others increases the risk of COVID-19 spread, have hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol available, wash hands often and avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands and sneeze or cough into the inside of the elbow.

Workforce COVID-19 education

Notwithstanding, there are some specific precautions employees need to know about returning to work and understand that employers are authorized to establish certain mandates related to COVID-19.

  1. Disinfect high touch surfaces daily including door handles, light witches, counter and desktops, phones and keyboards.

  2. Employers may require returning workers to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks and gloves and observe infection control practices for example regular hand washing and social distancing protocols.

  3. Under federal law, employers may require a COVID-19 vaccination for all employees physically entering the workplace.

  4. Several states have enacted or have pending legislation that would prohibit employers from requiring a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment. A recently updated listing is available here

  5. Employers may provide education materials to employees about COVID-19 vaccines, raise awareness about the benefits of vaccination, and address common questions and concerns and under certain circumstances may offer incentives to employees who receive COVID-19 vaccines.

  6. Employers may measure employee’s body temperature.

  7. Employers may require employees to remain at home if they have symptoms of COVID-19.

  8. Employers may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before initially permitting them to enter the workplace and/or periodically to determine if their presence in the workplace poses a direct threat to others.

  9. Employers may ask employees physically entering the workplace about testing or diagnoses of COVID-19.

  10. Employees may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation that does not pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business if they are not vaccinated based on an ADA disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance protected by Title VII. For example, as a reasonable accommodation, an unvaccinated employee entering the workplace might wear a face mask, work at a social distance from coworkers or non-employees, work a modified shift, get periodic tests for COVID-19, be given the opportunity to telework, or finally, accept a reassignment.

  11. Employers must maintain all employee medical data, including data collected related to COVID in confidential medical files separate from personnel files.

Employee mental health

Mental health must also be a consideration when returning to work. For some employees it will be a welcome opportunity, for others it may result in uncertainty, stress and worry. The American Psychological Association offers some guidance.

  1. Open communicate is essential to reduce employees’ uncertainty and build emotional support.

  2. Develop individualized return to work plans for employees.

  3. Train managers to recognize employees with mental health struggles, which include psychological first aid training.

  4. Educate employees on using the employee assistance program to connect them with needed services.

  5. Employers need to consider if employees can continue to work remotely, offer schedule flexibility, and offer a flex hour after lunch for outdoor activities, recreation or exercise.

  6. Involve employees in discussions about their workspace including physical distancing, lighting, sound masking and furniture arrangement.

About the Author

Greg Walterhouse is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Fire Administration and Masters in Public Administration programs at Bowling Green State University. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Management from Oakland University, a Master’s degree in Legal Studies from the University of Illinois and a Master’s degree in Management from Central Michigan University, and a Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership from Bowling Green State University. Before joining BGSU, Greg had over 35 years experience in various aspects of public safety with 18 years in upper management. The author may be contacted at

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