As Virus Wanes, Employers Warm Up To Long-Term Telework

By Braden Campbell
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Law360 (June 2, 2020, 1:02 AM EDT) -- Many businesses plan to let employees continue working remotely when they reopen their offices and may keep doing so even after the coronavirus pandemic subsides, according to a survey released Tuesday by Littler Mendelson PC asking more than 1,000 employers how they're navigating the return to work.

Just over half of respondents told the management-side employment giant that they plan to be flexible with workers' requests to work from home until the pandemic subsides. Another 30% said they plan to change policies to allow telework as long as employees have proven they can be productive, Littler found.

Thirteen percent said they will let employees in high-risk groups telework on a case-by-case basis, and 4% said they can't grant remote work requests because their employees must work on-site, according to the survey.

The results show that employers' views on remote work have shifted during the pandemic, said Michelle Barrett Falconer, the co-chair of Littler's leaves of absence and disability accommodation practice group.

"For years we've had employers say, 'An employee who's got specified 'X' condition wants to work from home and this really isn't a work-from-home job,'" Falconer told Law360. "It's very interesting, as we've had to turn very quickly to a remote work environment … how that has evolved employers' thinking."

Littler pinged employers in early May as they took steps toward reopening, asking about their timelines for a return to in-person work, what safety precautions they're taking and more. The firm received responses from 1,010 in-house attorneys, human resources staffers and executives at employers ranging in size from fewer than 100 workers to more than 10,000, Littler said.

The responses show a change in employers' attitudes toward telework. Falconer attributed this shift to a few factors, including the difficulty of getting employees in to work even after the pandemic slows.

Historically, employers have been hesitant to let employees telework out of concerns they won't be productive. But if social distancing rules and health screening mean workers have to spend long periods of time waiting in line to enter the building, "it may lower productivity to put somebody in the office," Falconer said. Likewise, in-person work heightens exposure risks, and employees may have children to care for or other concerns that preclude coming back to the office, she said.

"Most employers don't want to force that conversation," she said. "It's not going to go well, and nobody is going to walk away feeling very good about it."

Most of the survey respondents that aren't already open told Littler that they plan to reopen soon. Thirty-four percent said they planned to open within a month, another 44% said they planned to do so in one to three months, and 9% were eyeing a return in three to six months. One percent each said they're looking to reopen in six to nine months or in 2021, and 10% said they will not set a date until the virus subsides or testing is widely available. 

As the surveyed employers maintain in-person operations or gear up to reopen, many have implemented one or more measures to keep their workers safe, they told Littler. More than eight in 10 respondents said their safety plans include increased cleaning, limited employee contact in common areas, or providing face masks. Other popular steps include modifying workplaces to maintain distance between workers, and letting employees telework if they don't have to be in the office. 

And 58% of respondents said they plan to conduct temperature or other health screenings. Of these, 89% said they will conduct temperature checks and 72% said they will conduct "symptom screening" in which they assess workers for symptoms of the virus. Fewer than one in 10 said they will implement antibody or other direct tests for infection.

The survey also gauged employers' chief legal concerns. Leaves of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act or other laws took the top spot with 68% of employers reporting concerns, followed by safety violations, workers' compensation and employee privacy.
--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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