Newsletter: Returning to work and worried about safety? Here’s what to know

A worker wears a face mask
A worker wears a face mask patterned with stars.
(Sven Hoppe / Associated Press)

Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor, with our weekly newsletter about how you and your bank account can weather the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for whatever the economy might look like on the other side.

As California emerges in stages from its coronavirus-induced lockdown, many people who have been working from their dining room tables and home offices are being called back to their places of employment. As of May 27, offices in Los Angeles are allowed to reopen as long as they implement safety protocols laid out by the county Department of Public Health.

COVID-19 is still killing people, though California’s death toll surpassed 5,000 last weekend and that’s leaving some workers reluctant to go back to their offices.

One reader told us his employer is putting an end to working from home and requiring everyone to return to the company’s downtown L.A. office. He asked us: “I informed them of my health concerns and they told me they would cut my hours or put me on a leave of absence. Are employers legally allowed to do this?

The short answer is yes, and it could even be legal to fire you if you refuse to return but there are a lot of caveats. My colleague Taylor Avery put together this Q&A about strategies you might try and legal protections you might have.

If I’m concerned about returning to work, what’s the first step?


If your employer is requiring employees to return to the office and you’re worried about the possibility of catching COVID-19 there, check what kind of safety measures your employer is implementing.

“They should inquire what kind of precautions are in place, what kinds of protective equipment is in place, what kinds of sanitary activities are being taken, what kinds of protections for people in terms of distancing and to limit contacts with others. They should first inquire before they decide it’s too dangerous to go back to work,” said Katherine Stone, a professor at the UCLA School of Law who specializes in labor and employment law.

What if my employer hasn’t taken enough precautions?

One option is to talk to your co-workers. If they feel the same, you can approach your employer collectively with your concerns.

“There is a right under the federal labor law to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection.... First [workers] have to ask the employer to improve the safety protections or provide the adequate protections, and then if the employer refused and they collectively decided not to come to work until the protections were in place, then they would have protection under the labor law,” said Stone.

Would it help to contact the government?

Maybe. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known as OSHA, has put out a set of guidelines. Employers aren’t required to follow them, Stone said, but it’s also illegal for an employer to retaliate against a worker for filing a complaint with OSHA.

Wendy Musell, a partner at the Stewart and Musell employment and civil rights law firm in Emeryville, Calif., agreed.

“If an employee was aware, for example, that they weren’t cleaning the workplace like they’re supposed to, that there’s not social distancing, that there’s no PPE and the worker complained about that, you couldn’t cut that worker’s hours or not bring them back in retaliation for making a workplace safety complaint,” Musell said.

You also could file a complaint with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA. But office workers may face difficulty getting help.

The problem is one of priorities, since the agency has a big backlog of complaints, said Linda Delp, director of UCLA’s Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program.

“I’ll be very honest, [Cal/OSHA]’s priority is not going to be on office work environments because they’re dealing with positive cases and fatalities related to COVID in healthcare settings, in meatpacking,” Delp said.

Other experts have emphasized the importance of filing a complaint, though not because it has a high chance of getting you quick help, but rather so the state understands that lots of people are having problems.

“It’s really important that the state and Cal/OSHA know that COVID cases are still happening in workplaces, that workers are still being put at risk,” Alice Berliner, coordinator for the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, an advocacy group, told The Times this spring. “If Cal/OSHA complaints were to stop ... it could be perceived that there isn’t as much of an issue.”

For practical help, Delp suggested reaching out to the Coalition for Labor Union Women or SoCal Worker Occupational Safety and Health for support. Her own program at UCLA can provide education and resources also.

What if I have a health condition?

If your health condition is categorized as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act, your employer must give you a reasonable accommodation that is, changes in hours, rules or other workplace conditions that enable you to fulfill your job functions as long as they don’t present an undue hardship to the business.

Musell believes the simplest and most effective accommodation in many cases is permission to work from home.

“I’ve actually heard from many people in business that they’re actually finding that allowing their employees to telework might save them money,” she said. “In many workplaces, people can’t stay six feet apart. If you’re in cubicles, … it could be very costly to reformat those cubicles so that there is a shield of some sort.”

If your employer says no to continued teleworking, Musell said workers can also ask for shifts at different times, a space farther away from other workers, or a barrier to put in front of their cubicle.

When asking for accommodations, consider bolstering your case with a note from a doctor.

“Probably the strongest tool that an individual worker could have if they don’t want to come back to work is a doctor’s notification,” said Kevin Riley, the director of research and evaluation at UCLA’s Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program.

If you and your employer can’t figure out a reasonable accommodation and you want some breathing room, you might be able to take a bit of time off.

The federal Families First Coronavirus Act provides for some weeks of paid sick time for certain employees including those who can’t work because a healthcare provider has advised them to self-quarantine for COVID-19-related reasons though exclusions apply. The city of Los Angeles has an ordinance mandating up to two weeks of paid sick leave for some workers, and L.A. County has a similar ordinance.

What if I’m an older worker?

The Age Discrimination in Employement Act protects workers older than 40 from discrimination; for example, employers can’t block them from returning to the workplace because of their age. But employers are not required to make special accommodations for them.

Workers over 65, with some exceptions, are eligible for L.A.’s COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave.

What if I’m caring for a family member who has COVID-19 or I have to stay home to care for a child whose school or daycare has shut because of the virus?

You might be eligible for paid family leave benefits through the state or under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

— At least 1,000 L.A. County restaurants are not following coronavirus safety rules, inspections show. “There should be no places where tables are right next to each other,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told Colleen Shalby and Alex Wigglesworth.

— There’s a Black jobs crisis. And coronavirus is making it worse, writes Margot Roosevelt. She breaks down May’s labor report, which indicates that a staggering 16.8% of the African American labor force was out of work, up from 16.7% a month prior.

— Wondering why your tax refund is taking so long to arrive? Liz Weston explains why your money may be held up at the IRS.

— A smaller competitor to Instacart is a better deal for professional shoppers, writes Kathy Kristof. Shoppers are able to create their own business using Dumpling, a smartphone app that lets them set their own hours, rate and minimum tip.

— You’re being left in the dark about coronavirus hot spots in your area. Russ Mitchell explains why public health agencies are holding back information that could be used to inform the public about virus cases in their communities.

— “An apocalyptic collapse in state and local government employment is already upon us,” writes columnist Michael Hiltzik. He outlines how state and local government employment has “fallen off a cliff.”

— Los Angeles’ average rent fell 3% in May from a year earlier as the coronavirus hit the economy, Andrew Khouri writes. As economic concerns heighten, some landlords and property managers are offering a month of free rent or dropping their asking rate.

In Los Angeles, tenants cannot be evicted for unpaid rent if they can show they’ve faced economic hardships as a result of the coronavirus. Liam Dillon explains the latest effort from landlord groups to overturn these rules.

One more thing

A quick word of warning from columnist David Lazarus: With many people still stuck at home, debt collectors see a golden opportunity. They have grown increasingly aggressive as stay-at-home orders have made it easier for them to reach, and sometimes harass, those who owe money, writes Lazarus. If you’re receiving a deluge of calls, you can send a letter to the debt collector and ask for them to stop. That won’t make your debt disappear, but as the Federal Trade Commission told Lazarus, “stopping the calls may give you time to regroup, then start working your way toward financial recovery.”

See you next week!

Have a question about work, business or finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, or tips for coping that you’d like to share? Send us an email at, and we may include it in a future newsletter.