COVID Recovery: Return To Offices Already Posing Legal Questions

As offices in the Bay Area and across the country reopen, the return to workplaces a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic poses some legal questions that may be settled in the courts. John Ramos reports. (5/3/21)

Video Transcript

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ELIZABETH COOK: On the road to recovery, New York City ordered all of its remote city workers to return to the office today. Employers here in the Bay Area are taking their time doing that. But as KPIX 5's John Ramos reports, it does pose a few questions that may be settled in the courts.

JOHN RAMOS: At some point, there will be a call to return to work. And the question then will be how much authority does your boss have to tell you to come into the office and under what conditions? Alex Durbin works in San Francisco and says his friends and family don't mind going back to the workplace-- well, sort of.

ALEX DURBIN: They're ready to go back. But they don't want to do it full time. And I think that's something that is going to be brought into the workforce for the long haul, hopefully.

JOHN RAMOS: And what happens if employers try and force that?

ALEX DURBIN: Uh, got to stick it to the man, I guess.

JOHN RAMOS: It is becoming the next big struggle in the COVID-19 arena. Can employers require people to return to the office? And can they mandate they be vaccinated?

Is that legal?

MICHAEL BERNICK: Yes, it is, with certain exceptions.

JOHN RAMOS: Employment attorney Michael Bernick says bosses can impose vaccine mandates, except for people with strong religious objections or a legitimate medical condition preventing it. But that may not be the end of it.

MICHAEL BERNICK: Well, people are contesting it already. So the courts are already getting involved. We'll see. With greater guidance, again, I think we'll get a more nuanced view.

JOHN RAMOS: Alexis Alvarez represents workers with disabilities for a group called Legal Aid at Work. She acknowledges that bosses have the power to demand vaccinations and a return to work. But--

ALEXIS ALVAREZ: Then, of course, I also very strongly believe that employers should following their legal obligations. And having that balance makes space for all workers in our workplaces.

JOHN RAMOS: At this point, most Bay Area employers are not rushing to take a hard line about returning. And attorney Jim Brown thinks there may be a practical reason for that.

JIM BROWN: Well, employers are going to have to strike a balance. If they have a business that it's difficult to find workers, and they're too strict in what they're requiring, they're not going to have enough workers. Because people will simply find another job if they don't want to return to the workplace.

JOHN RAMOS: Or, in other words, they may just stick it to the man. In San Francisco, John Ramos, KPIX 5.

ELIZABETH COOK: Well, right now, return-to-work rules are coming from state and federal workplace regulators. But the labor attorneys agree those are guidelines that will later be refined by the courts.