Marc J. Siegel, who practices labor and employment law in Chicago, provided insight into returning to work Saturday.
MARK RIVERA: We’re now more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is room for optimism, thanks to an increase in vaccine distribution and lower positivity rates in cases. So is a full return to the workplace a safe and smart decision? Joining us this morning is Marc Siegel, a Chicago labor and employment attorney. Thank you for being here, Marc.
MARC SIEGEL: Thanks so much for having me on the show, Mark. I appreciate it.
MARK RIVERA: It’s great to have you. So tell us, when we’re thinking about this return to the office, can employers force employees a return to normal work hours and kind of this back to sort of a normal situation where they might be in person once they’re fully vaccinated?
MARC SIEGEL: The answer is, yes, employers have broad discretion, Mark, in terms of having rules regarding return to work. A lot of employers are struggling with whether to require employees to have vaccinations. And employers legally can require employees to be vaccinated before returning to work, Mark, with two caveats. That if somebody has a medical condition that needs an accommodation, that needs to be done. And if somebody has a sincerely held religious belief that would prevent that employee from having the vaccine, that also needs to be accommodated. But in general, employers are able to set the rules as they see fit.
The challenge, of course, is that about 30% to 35% of the workforce doesn’t plan on getting vaccinated. So that creates a real challenge in terms of, what are you going to do with those people if you require a vaccination?
MARK RIVERA: Yeah, what are– what are you thinking? What have– have you been in talks with different employers and employees? What have some of those plans looked like in terms of finding a way to– to, you know, make room for those 30% that might not be vaccinated?
MARC SIEGEL: Right. What a lot of employers are doing are encouraging employees to get the vaccine, but not requiring it. Because no employer wants to lose 35% of its workforce. And so more and more employers, Mark, are moving to a hybrid system, where employees are working a couple days in the office and working remotely out of the office. And I know, for example, Citibank is doing that. And they don’t plan to go backwards to remote work.
But the hybrid office raises a lot of issues, probably, in terms of managing people, in terms of making sure you’re treating everybody the same. That’s going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen before in the workplace. So I’m thinking that a lot of this hybrid work situation is going to have some of the same starts and stops that are happening in schools right now. They open up the school or the workplace, and then people get COVID. And then, do you have to recoil back? Because there’s a lot of fear out there from all sides.
MARK RIVERA: Right, and on the flip-side, just briefly, I mean, we’re talking about what to do with those 30%. If you’re somebody who is vaccinated, and you want to stay safe and still be in the workplace, you know, what kind of protocols can there be when you’re talking about trying to bring people who might not be vaccinated back into the office?
MARC SIEGEL: Sure. And I think there’s going to be a rift between the people who are vaccinated, just like we talked about, who don’t even feel safe being with their families or their friends unless they’re vaccinated. So in order for the employer to ensure a safe working place, they’re going to have to do the same thing that’s being done now– have PPE, have spacing, have the plastic coverings up, have good ventilation, have masks.
But that still may not appeal to people who have been vaccinated. So that’s really what remains to be seen is how this interaction is going to take place, and are people going to feel safe returning to work? There are a lot of people that are not.
MARK RIVERA: Yeah, Marc, thank you so much for talking today. We appreciate it. A lot more to learn here, of course. And we have more information, including a link, to Marc Siegel’s practice right on our website. Just head over to abc7chicago.com.