Can I be forced to return to work during Coronavirus?

‘Do I have to go back to work?’ The question is on everyone’s mind these days. As some states across the nation reopen, more workers are being asked to return to work. Jane Harper is here to guide you about coronavirus pay cuts, workplace safety, and most importantly – whether you can refuse to return to work.

Dear Jane,

People at my office have been working remotely since the beginning of March. Two days ago, we received a company-wide memo detailing a new plan wherein we’ll be returning to work at a reduced capacity. I emailed my manager saying I choose to work from home for an indefinite period of time since I take public transport, which is high-risk for me and everyone around me. I also live with my grandmother and wouldn’t want her to get the virus because of me. Later that day, I got a call from the HR manager saying I would need to rush back to work. I want to know if my employer can fire me if I don’t return to the office.

Can I be forced to return to work coronavirus

Is your employer requiring employees to return to work during COVID-19 pandemic?

Many are afraid that using mass transit will expose them to the risk of being infected by the coronavirus. If I were in your place, I would make a request of change in office hours to avoid rush hour.

That said, an employer can fire you if you refuse to return to work. Most employees in the U.S. are employed “at will,” meaning that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason that is not deemed illegal.

Feeling unsafe about the coronavirus pandemic won’t be enough to legally protect you if you refuse to return to work. Unless you have legal justification, refusing to rush back to work will most certainly constitute a resignation from employment.

There are several federal laws that may provide workers with legal justification:


The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) grants workers the right to refuse to work if they believe workplace conditions could cause them imminent harm.

Employers must comply with the OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which requires employers to guarantee their employees a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

OSHA’s General Duty Clause is quite hard to meet if the employer is practicing social distancing and hygiene guidelines at the place of work. If you’re worried that your employer isn’t doing enough then it won’t be enough to grant you protection.

If you think your place of work is unsafe because of the coronavirus, and you have concrete evidence, you can file a complaint in the OSHA. The OSHA also includes an anti-retaliatory clause, meaning you cannot be fired or demoted for asserting your rights in the workplace.

The brutal and straightforward answers to HR-related queries and concerns. Send in your queries with the subject line ‘Ask JANE HARPER’ at

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Jane Harper
Writer. Human resources expert and consultant. Follow @thehrdigest on Twitter

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