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Can An Employer Fire Employees Who Refuse To Come Back to the Office?

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As COVID restrictions ease, many employers are deciding whether to require employees who have been working remotely to come back to the office. So can an employer fire employees who refuse to come back to the office? Yes–with some important exceptions.

Let’s face it, we have learned over the past year that remote work has some advantages. No commute, no need to dress up and put on makeup very day (unless there is a Zoom meeting), no uncomfortable shoes, and you can fix your own pretty inexpensive lunch. And that super-chatty co-worker can’t stop by and take up your time with another story about his cats. But there are disadvantages as well. It’s hard to have a consistent corporate culture when employees are not in the same place. Employees may not feel connected to their co-workers because they don’t have the water cooler or break room conversations. Mental health issues have arisen for people who have felt lonely or isolated during remote work. And we cannot underestimate the value of face-time in furthering career advancement. The bottom line: some people thrive in a remote work setting, and some people don’t. Some people simply prefer to be in an office setting with co-workers.

If an employer decides that it wants employees back in the office, it can generally terminate employees who refuse to give up their remote work lifestyles; it is insubordination for an employee to refuse a reasonable directive of her/his employer. However, and this is a big however, if an employer is covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act, it may need to consider whether allowing a disabled employee to continue to work remotely is considered a reasonable accommodation. For example, in Massachusetts, a worker with asthma sued their employer regarding a work from home accommodation, and the federal district court allowed the case to go forward.

The success of remote work in the past year or so will make it more difficult for an employer to convince a court that working remotely is not a “reasonable” accommodation or that working at a particular location is an “essential function” of the job. It’s a good idea to consult an attorney in this situation.

Just because you CAN do something does not mean that you must do it. There are going to be some folks who feel so strongly about working remotely that they are willing to quit rather than return to the office. Or maybe they still don’t have reliable child care. Is it worth losing employees, especially valuable employees, over this issue? How easily will you be able to replace them?

And finally–if you want to avoid claims for discrimination on the basis of characteristics other than disability, you’d better have some valid, non-discriminatory reasons for allowing some employees to work remotely while others are required to go into the office. Don’t play favorites.

Principal | Email: kjj@wimlaw.com
Kathleen J. Jennings is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. She defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters.

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