By Dave Caldwell
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has obviously been wreaking fresh havoc in the workplace for the last few months, on top of the disruptions we have already been dealing with for the past two years during this pandemic. Employers and employees alike have been trying to navigate whether they should be working remotely, in an office, or with a hybrid model when possible.
Some employers have announced that employees never have to come back to the office if they don’t want to, and others have brought them back already. For those employers who have been delaying their decision, deciding when and whether or not to come back just got more complicated.
A recent poll by Morning Consult and reported by Bloomberg Wealth found that 55% of remote workers would consider quitting their jobs if they were asked to come back to the office before they felt safe. That number rose from 45% just a week prior, showing a troubling trend for employers who are trying to develop return to work plans.
You may already be facing staffing shortages due to the “Great Resignation”, and the prospect of losing more employees is daunting. Certainly, there is a reason to have a strategy for addressing workplace flexibility. Many employers have found that offering additional flexibility, up to and including making certain positions permanently remote. But for those employers where there isn’t a good cultural fit for remote employment, or where the role itself is difficult to sustain remotely, the outcome could be additional turnover, meaning even more unemployment claims. The good news is there are ways you can help protect your organization from unwarranted unemployment benefit payments.
Making sure you have processes in place to help ensure COVID safety in the workplace when returning to the office is critical for both employee morale and demonstrating office safety. It is important to show you have implemented measures to help ensure COVID safety and can detail them to the State Unemployment Division if claims are filed due to the employee not feeling safe in the workplace.
Early notification and providing employees with ample time to prepare for any changes to their workplace whether permanently remote, hybrid, or returning to the office will show your willingness to help them understand your company’s requirements and your reasons for the decisions. Your communication plan should:
Be consistent and transparent and open the door to listen to any concerns.
Go through multiple delivery channels such as emails, town halls, and your Intranet.
If needed or as may be required, be provided in multiple languages.
Include dates or time frames wherever possible.
It’s important to understand your decisions from an unemployment perspective so that you can prepare for potential employee separations and help protect your organization from unnecessary charges to your state accounts. In most states, when an employee voluntarily leaves their job, they have the burden of showing proof they left with good cause and that it can be somehow attributable to you as the employer.
In the case of temporary work-from-home situations, it is important that you have communicated that remote work is temporary, and that return to the office is expected when conditions are safe to do so. If you hired employees into a remote position, it may be more difficult for you to defend against any unemployment claims since they were never in a workplace in the first place. Setting those expectations during the hiring process and documenting them is a good way to help prove your intent and the employee’s awareness.
If the employee does quit, being able to communicate the separation itself as accurately as possible is very important. For example, if an employee indicates they would like to continue to work remotely, and they are summarily dismissed, it should be reported as a discharge. And in such cases, you as the employer have the burden of proof to show that they were discharged for misconduct, which could be difficult. A more effective approach might be to assign a date to report to the office, after which the employee would be considered to have resigned.
There are many nuances to the issue of remote employment, and that complexity can lead to confusion for some employers. As with most unemployment matters, the key to successfully defending against unnecessary unemployment costs is to outline your processes and expectations in advance, communicate them clearly to the employees involved, and then to be as detailed and specific as possible to the state if a claim is actually filed.
For additional resources around how COVID-19 may affect unemployment, listen to our podcast “The HR Outlook for Vaccine Mandates - Unemployment” or visit our Vaccine Resources page for podcasts, blogs, and Perspective guides on how mandates might affect a wide range of areas from your unemployment costs, Affordable Care Act affordability, and even your onboarding processes.
The information provided is intended as general guidance and is not intended to convey any tax, benefits, compliance or legal advice. For information pertaining to your company and its specific facts and needs, please consult your own tax advisor or legal counsel. Links to sources may be to third party sites. We have no control over and assume no responsibility for the content, privacy policies or practices of any third party sites or services.