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How to talk to your employer if you’re nervous about going back to work

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Most of Virginia entered Phase 2 of the governor’s plan to reopen the commonwealth on June 5. Though many essential workers have already been upholding grocery stores, banks and hospitals, a whole slew of Virginia’s workforce is getting ready to return to places like restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and more.

Though we’re all admittedly ready to have a margarita again outside the confines of our homes, it’s reasonable to have some anxieties about your health while going back to work.

It’s safe to say that, to a certain extent, this is a universal concern for Virginians returning to work. Whether you have an ongoing medical condition that puts you at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, or you’re simply experiencing germophobic fears that the pandemic has instilled in us all, returning to the office will be a slightly uncomfortable adjustment for us all.

So how do you talk to your employer about these concerns?

“Employees should know that many, many people have concerns about returning to work,” said John Bredehoft, an employment lawyer in Norfolk. “So all employees should act knowing that their employer almost certainly has concerns about returning to work — and that the employer wants to keep the workforce healthy and content.”

Be honest and understanding

First and foremost, be honest with your employer about your anxieties and, if possible, be specific about what concerns you have about returning to work.

“The very first thing I’ve said about anything related to the coronavirus is be kind, and I think that’s still important. ,” Bredehoft said, noting that these types of conversations with an employer will go much more smoothly if you stay calm and understand that your employer likely has their own set of concerns, as well.

“Come to the discussion with the mindset that these are people with genuine fears that genuinely need to be addressed, and addressing the fears is in the best,” Bredehoft said. “People aren’t going to do their best for you if they’re worried about coming down with a deadly disease.”

Do your research

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued guidance discussing four types of “risk groups” in the workplace and appropriate health safety practices for each group. The highest risk group are workers that come in close contact with people, such as dentists. The lowest risk group are workers who are not customer-facing and seldom see another employee.

According to Bredehoft, most companies fall somewhere in between in the “moderate risk” category, for which OSHA recommends the following:

  • Physical barriers such as clear “sneeze guards” where feasible.
  • “Consider” requiring employees and customers to wear face masks.
  • Post signs to educate customers about COVID-19 risks, and ask them not to come in if sick.
  •  “Where appropriate,” restrict customer access to the worksite. “For example, drive in services only,” Bredehoft said.
  • Communicate to workers the availability of onsite health resources. “For example, if there is an on-site nurse,” Bredehoft said.

OSHA also recommends that all businesses follow general guidelines regardless of risk:

  • Develop  a written plan.
  • Remain aware of state and local guidance and rules.
  • Handwashing and respiratory etiquette.
  • Encourage sick employees to remain at home.

To ease your anxieties, consider calling your employer or a trusted person within your company to discuss what precautions they are taking to ensure that you will be returning to a healthy and safe environment.

If they are not taking careful precautions, consider reporting your concerns to a supervisor. If that fails, file a complaint with OSHA or the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.

If need be, talk to your doctor

Bredehoft said that a number of clients have contacted with concerns regarding “underlying conditions” that may make them more susceptible to contracting the virus upon returning to work.

Though there are no laws that would require an employer to provide paid or unpaid leave to such a person, Bredehoft encourages employees to discuss this concern with their employer. In most cases, he hopes that an employer would be understanding and willing to brainstorm an alternative solution to returning to the workplace.

If an employer is unwilling to compromise, see your doctor.

“A note from a doctor stating that you are a high-risk individual can keep you from going back to work for the time being,” Bredehoft said.

Though most Virginians are feeling anxiety about returning to the office, that doesn’t diminish any concerns you may have about going back to work. If you are scared for your health and the safety of your loved ones, talk to your colleagues and see if they’re in the same boat and if they’d be willing to discuss these concerns with an employer together.

Bredehoft said that, above all else, know that we’re in this together.

“We need to acknowledge that fact, acknowledge the legitimacy of each other’s concerns and work cooperatively,” he said.