Can Employees Refuse to Return to Work because of COVID-19?

Utah is easing some of its COVID-19 restrictions. With the move from “high risk” to “moderate risk” under the Utah Leads Together Plan, some businesses are reopening. While some employees are anxious to return to work, others are not. This raises an important question for employers: Can employees refuse to return to work because of COVID-19?

The short answer is “no.” Utah is an at-will employment state. If an employee refuses to return to work, then the employer may either terminate the employee or treat the refusal as quitting. And if an employee quits, then they generally forfeit their right to unemployment benefits—which ultimately may be a cost savings for the employer over termination of the employee.

But short answers can lead to long, expensive lawsuits. Employers must be aware of federal, state, and local laws. Employers must consider whether the employee’s refusal is reasonable in light of the employer’s measures taken to reduce the risks of COVID-19, whether the employee is entitled to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, whether the employee has paid leave they can use, or whether the employee has a covered disability that must be accommodated. Unfortunately, these are just some of the many difficult questions that employers face that have no short, one-size-fits-all answer.

Employers should consult with an employment attorney before making these decisions. If any of your employees are refusing to return to work because of COVID-19, please give me a call at 801.365.1024.

Nathan D. Anderson