COVID-19 Is Especially Dangerous for You: What if your Agency Calls You Back to the Office?

Photo of young African American woman teleworking from homeYou’ve been teleworking for weeks — which is good, because you have a compromised immune system, or respiratory problems or other risk factor making exposure to Covid-19 especially dangerous for you. But now you are hearing that your agency is about to end telework and return you and your colleagues to the office. What can you do?

Ask for Telework as an Accommodation

If you have a medical condition that puts you at special risk for COVID-19 (the CDC provides guidance) and you have been teleworking as part of your department or agency’s “Work from Home” policy, you can ask to be given an accommodation for your medical disability allowing you to continue teleworking until the special risk posed by COVID-19 is gone. You can simply talk to your supervisor and ask to be allowed to telework because your medical condition puts you at special risk. No magic words are needed, but you do need to be clear that you are asking to be allowed to telework as a reasonable accommodation because of your specific medical issues. Unless your medical condition is obvious or well-known, your supervisor will likely ask for a letter from your doctor as evidence of your medical condition. If she is hesitant to allow you to continue teleworking when everyone else returns to the office, ask for a temporary accommodation, one that will be reviewed, say, in a month. OPM has advised agencies to be flexible.

It’s probably a good idea to start the discussion with your supervisor as soon as possible, so that you know what is going to happen when your department is ordered back to the office.

Use Leave as an Alternative

If your request for teleworking as an accommodation is denied, replaced perhaps with promises of hand-sanitizer and social-distancing, you may want to think about taking leave. This has to be approved, it’s true, but your supervisor may be more comfortable allowing you to take leave rather than appearing to grant you a favor – continuing to telework – when everyone else returns to the office. You may qualify for up to 80 hours of leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, P.L. 116-127, see our blog post here, or you may qualify for Family Medical Leave, which will be paid or unpaid depending on whether you have leave available.

If you have questions about your employment rights during the pandemic, please contact the employment lawyers of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch. We advocate for you.