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Can I be let go from my job if I don’t feel safe going back to the office?

Can I be let go from my job if I don’t feel safe going back
to the office? 1

My employer wants us back in the office, but I don’t feel the conditions there are safe. They said if I don’t return, I’m abandoning my job. What are my options?

You have just opened a can of workplace worms, and I believe there will be many of these new workplace issues that will be hitting the courts for resolution over the next few years. Generally, one has to feel more than “not safe” — there has to be evidence of conditions in violation of health and safety regulations and guidelines. COVID-19 has had a detrimental effect on mental health, though, and the anxiety that some people have, if certified by a doctor, could rise to the level of a disability that could be qualifying for leave or accommodation. I also think that the unemployment divisions are going to be sympathetic to individuals who claim that employers did not make them feel safe, forcing resignation, whereby they may qualify for unemployment. But without a medically certified request for leave, or evidence of actual unsafe or unhealthy working conditions, if you fail to return to work, your employer will likely consider that a resignation.

I was told to never ask about benefits in the job interview. However, with all of the health issues from COVID, I appreciate benefits more than ever. Is it now OK to ask about them at the beginning of the process?

No, it’s not. It’s not quite as bad as asking which office you will be getting, but questions about benefits are typically reserved for the end of the process, if and when a job offer is extended. Your only goal is to first get them to make you an offer. Then you can evaluate the compensation and benefits before you make your decision. Unless you are interviewing with a very small employer (say, under 50 people), you are unlikely to find a company that doesn’t offer a competitive benefits plan. I’ve rarely seen candidates choose one job over another because of the difference in the benefits, unless they have a serious underlying condition and they need to weigh up plans to ensure proper coverage.

Gregory Giangrande has over 25 years of experience as a chief human resources executive and is dedicated to helping New Yorkers get back to work. E-mail your questions to [email protected] Follow Greg on Twitter: @greggiangrande and at GoToGreg.com.

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