Employers Are Sick of the Pandemic. Employees Are Paying the Price.

Companies have started to make their workers go back to the office for no good reason.

A woman wearing a mask holds a folder while standing in her office.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

As an unsettling number of people have started ignoring public health guidance because they’re tired of restricting their behavior, employers too are increasingly relaxing their own practices even though the coronavirus continues to surge in many parts of the country. Employers are embracing the same magical thinking so many individuals are—we’re ready for it to be over, so we’ll just act as if it is—often at great expense to their workers.

Increasingly, employers are deciding to bring employees back to the office after several months of remote work. But they aren’t making those decisions based on any public health milestones; the moves appear to stem from plain old pandemic fatigue. Here’s an account that’s typical of a lot of the reports I’m receiving:

I work for a 500-person company that has had all but 10 employees working from home since mid-March. They have decided for reasons they have not shared that the office has to reopen this week. … Technically, we’re an essential business and they are legally okay to do this, but everything can be done remotely and it’s contrary to the local recommendations. Many of the workers will be forced to take public transportation. Other similar companies in the area have committed to letting their people telecommute at least until September and probably until 2021.

We have all made our concerns known, but somebody has a bee in their bonnet about letting people work from home. With 50 million unemployment claims, the company isn’t concerned about losing their workforce. … It’s very upsetting to everyone for the obvious health reasons, but also because the people we’ve worked for for many years can’t even be bothered to give us a reason for why they are willing to risk our lives.

To be fair, there can be legitimate reasons to want people back in the office. Some things are harder to do from home, or had to be put on hold entirely when teams went remote. And not every person or every job is well-suited for remote work, and that can show up in work quality and productivity. But what workers are rightly struggling with is: Why now? If conditions weren’t safe to return to the office a month ago, what has changed that makes them safer now?

In many cases, the answer seems to be little more than that the company’s management is sick of having to make so many accommodations and is ready for the crisis to be over. That, of course, is terrifying workers. Here’s another person who wrote to me:

My spouse is immunocompromised and I was forced to go back to work against my will this week after 2.5 months of working from home. My supervisor and HR are aware of my circumstances but would not allow me to continue working from home, despite the fact that I’ve been productive (more productive than I am now, because I’m sitting at work dealing with near crippling anxiety).

At this point I’m trying to decide when my mental health reaches the point where I need to take a medical leave and apply for short term/long term disability leave with my insurance. … It sucks. Before this, I loved my job and consistently spoke positively about my employer.

What’s more, employees who do return to the office often find that the safety guidelines they were assured would be in place quickly stop being enforced:

We were brought back to the office on June 1st. Leading up to it, we were promised that mask wearing would be required in common spaces. That dissolved in about a week. I think three of us wear masks, out of an office of 15. We have individual offices, thankfully, and tons of sanitizer, but almost all of the office work can be done at home. The big boss doesn’t like the idea of work from home (believes it hurts morale and productivity) and apparently had an extremely mild case of COVID the week we started our short work-from-home stint, so he doesn’t believe it’s that bad. … The recklessness is astounding.

Then there’s child care. With many schools, camps, and day cares still closed, most parents of young children have little choice but to keep their kids at home. That’s been a problem all along for parents who have had to juggle their work obligations with their child care responsibilities, and it’s posing a new problem now that people are being called back to their offices. While employers have been forced to be flexible with parents whose kids are at home, there are signs that they’re becoming increasingly less inclined to remain accommodating. One example: Last month, Florida State University announced that as of Aug. 7, employees would no longer be allowed to care for children while working from home—leaving many university employees panicked about how they could continue to stay in their jobs. The school retracted the new policy after outcry on social media, but other employers are making moves in the same direction, leaving parents wondering how they’ll be able to remain employed.

It’s understandable that employers would like to return to normal. We’d all like to return to normal—to parties, to indoor restaurant dining, to travel, and to hugs. But a desire to get back to normal is not the same as it being safe to proceed as normal, and employers who try are putting huge swaths of workers at risk and forcing people to choose between keeping their jobs amid a historically dismal job market and protecting themselves and their families.