By Matt Glynn, originally published in The Buffalo News on June 5, 2020 5:00 a.m..

As businesses reopen, some workers are worried about returning

As Spot Coffee develops a plan to reopen stores, some employees are nervous about going back to their jobs.

Those concerned workers would prefer Spot to use a curbside service model, rather than allowing customers into the cafes, said Rob Vitello, Buffalo district director of the Rochester Regional Joint Board of Workers United.

“We’re negotiating with them right now to come up with an agreement that works for everybody,” he said.

It’s an issue that companies across the Buffalo Niagara region faced as phase two of reopening began this week. Phase two allowed more businesses to either reopen or relax some restrictions. And once employees come back, employees’ bosses will have to be vigilant about making sure the Covid-19 safety guidelines are followed.

But even though the state has cleared those businesses to resume, they still have to make sure their workers feel comfortable about returning to their jobs.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of situations where employees are going to be hesitant to come back, and employers are going to have to decide what they’re going to do,” said Jim Grasso, a partner in Phillips Lytle’s labor and employment group.

Employees might fear possible exposure to Covid-19 in the workplace, he said.

Grasso said the best approach employers can take is to make sure they have all the necessary safety precautions in place, and to communicate with employees about their concerns.

In some cases, he said, employers may continue allowing employees to work from home.

“I think most employers I’ve talked to have been accommodating, allowing employees more time to ease back into the workplace,” he said. “There’s a lot of investment in employees that they don’t want to lose.”

What about situations where employees resist returning, but don’t have a disability or an authorized leave allowing them to stay home? Employers could terminate someone in those cases, Grasso said, but those same employers would face the challenge of recruiting and training new people while trying to get their businesses up to speed under tough circumstances.

When workers are back in the workplace, employers will have to make sure the new safety rules are followed, Grasso said. That includes steps such as wearing face masks and workers keeping their physical distance from each other. Grasso said employers are starting to designate someone to monitor those issues, akin to naming fire captains.

Some employers have come up with a way to address fears about coming back: They are allowing employees to just keep working from home.

M&T Bank, one of the region’s largest private employers, notified its employees that it will stick to its current plan – under which about 90% of its employees are working from home – until at least Labor Day, said Julia Berchou, a spokeswoman.

Independent Health, which is based in Amherst, is allowing its staff to keep working from home until Sept. 7.

The extended timeline helps employees who were worried about what to do with their children over the summer months, amid uncertainty about day care and summer camps, said Frank Sava, an Independent Health spokesman.

Independent Health’s decision was received throughout the organization with “quite a sense of relief and appreciation,” he said.

“This gives our associates the opportunity to plan accordingly,” Sava said.

Many employers with office settings have discovered most of their employees can work efficiently from home, which relieves pressure about bringing everyone back immediately. It is different for retailers and manufacturers, who need to have most of their workforce on-site to perform their jobs.

National surveys have found workers hesitant about returning. A Citrix survey of 2,000 workers last month found that 67% of them were not ready to return to the office for at least one month. And 28% said they would not be happy to return to the office for at least three months.

When employers come across reluctant employees, it is important to hear them out, Grasso said.

“A lot of it is just listening to employees’ concerns, and understanding why they are hesitant to come back,” he said.