Remote working may not be new to the world, but being forced to work from home due to a global pandemic? That’s a whole new ball game.
With 2020 came the emergence of COVID-19—a fast-spreading respiratory disease that has forced companies worldwide to adjust, adapt, and in most cases, move to working from home.
As companies have implemented their new WFH policies, you may find yourself feeling a little overwhelmed or confused. It’s not easy to suddenly shift from your usual office routines and familiar resources. Frequently, you may be left in a situation that has you feeling, among other things, overworked, inadequately reimbursed, and guilty about taking breaks.
While the current situation is new to many employees and employers, its novelty is not a reason for denying employees their basic rights. It’s important for your own well-being to ensure that you’re not dealing with a law-breaking employer or that you’re unknowingly being subjected to any illegal practices!
You most likely don’t have access to an employee rights lawyer at the moment, but that’s okay. You’re in the right place. Read on to have many of your work from home law questions answered and to find out all about your rights as an employee during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A common question many people have is, “Now that I’m working from home, should my employer be reimbursing me for the additional costs I’m incurring?”
These costs could include utilities such as electricity, Internet service, cell phone bill, gas and vehicle costs spent on driving to the office when required to do so, or to and go pick things up, and so on.
After all, it’s not your fault that you’re suddenly being required to work from home. Should you have to bear the weight of the added costs?
The answer is no.
If you asked an employee rights lawyer, you’d be pleased to find out that according to the California Labor Code, employers are in fact required by law to cover any necessary costs or monetary losses that their employees incur as a part of doing their job.
This may not only include reimbursement for heightened utility bills (resulting from you working from home instead of at a physical workplace), but also may include any equipment you may have had to purchase to properly perform your job, such as a laptop or a desk, as well as for the use of any equipment you already owned but now have to use for work purposes.
It is, however, important to consider that any equipment you may have purchased due to the pandemic that is reimbursed by your employer may be considered as company property and may have to be returned when office work resumes.
In terms of accommodation or acquiring payment towards your rent or mortgage, you’re unlikely to receive any sort of reimbursement (though unique circumstances may require otherwise).
With an unclear or unstructured policy in place, you may be left wondering whether or not you’re still entitled to sick leave or vacation days when working from home due to COVID. Both are within your rights.
When working in an office, it’s standard practice that if you’re feeling unwell, you’d likely call in sick and stay at home.
When you’re already working at home, however, this may leave you feeling confused, guilty, or unsure whether or not you’re still entitled to take the day off or if you should just power through.
The decision ultimately comes down to you. If you feel unable to complete your work to your usual standards or feel that you need the day off to recuperate and rest, then you should follow the same processes as you would when at the office. You still have the same rights to paid sick time under California law (and various local ordinances that provide greater protections, like those in Los Angeles and Santa Monica). Your employer has no greater right to stop you from using paid sick time than it did back when you were working away from home.
If you’re wondering whether or not the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) is still in place, entitling those in the USA to paid sick leave, this has unfortunately expired as of December 31, 2020. Your employer may choose to continue using the act until the end of March, should it wish to.
As a work from home employee, you also have the same rights to vacation pay that you would otherwise. While employers are not required to provide paid vacation time, the pandemic does not change your rights under any vacation pay policy your employer may have.
It can feel extremely stressful asking for a day off when you’re already working from home. You may feel concerned that this will affect your job security or look bad to your bosses. The added fact that you can’t exactly fly off and enjoy a vacation with ease may also contribute to your worries on whether or not you’re entitled to take time off.
Nevertheless, you are still entitled to any vacation time that you would be if you were still working in the office. It’s a good idea to place a distinction between your working time and personal time. Not allowing yourself to take time off can lead to you becoming overworked or taken advantage of. You’re still within your rights to follow your usual vacation procedure and entitled to your allowance under your employee package.
It is important, however, to take note that employers in California have the right to change their vacation pay policies on a going-forward basis. With that said, it remains illegal for an employer to subject your accrued and vested vacation pay to unpaid forfeiture in California and your employer must pay you for any such vacation pay at the time of termination.
Taking Breaks and Leaving the House
It’s said that three out of ten workers don’t take a lunch break when working from home, and a survey conducted showed that almost 30% of workers don’t take a single break all day. Over 60% of workers feel guilty when taking a break at home.
Not taking a meal or rest break, or taking an extremely short one, can mean that as time passes, you’re working several hours completely unpaid.
While you may be uncertain about work from home law or feel unproductive or undeserving of a break, it’s important that you understand that as an employee, you still have the same rights to periodic meal and rest breaks as you would if you were not working from home. California law entitles most employees to duty-free meal and rest breaks and requires their employers to pay them premium wages on days when they are denied duty-free breaks. When working from home, you must be allowed to leave your house during your breaks just as you would be allowed to leave any other workplace.
Working With a Disability
It’s said that one in five employees with a disability have had their work from home requests declined. If you’re living in an area where it’s not mandatory to be working remotely and feel that this is the better and safer option for you under the circumstances, you should approach your employer.
Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), employers are prohibited from discriminating against those with a disability, must engage in a good faith interactive process with disabled employees, and must provide them with reasonable accommodation.
Remote working can be considered as a reasonable accommodation for those with a disability provided that working from home addresses the need for accommodation.
In regards to those who suffer from issues such as vision problems (needing a better quality monitor, for example), or those with a hearing problem (who may need an adaptive listening device), this is also a good idea to bring up with your employer. Providing such equipment is often a reasonable accommodation.
Online Video Calls
As you’ve probably already experienced yourself, the move to home working has involved a huge shift to video calling platforms, such as Zoom.
This has come with several issues for employees, such as the feeling of an invasion of privacy or inappropriate behavior.
It’s important to consider that just because you’re not physically in the office does not mean that you’re not still expected to act as you would in a professional environment. Despite only interacting with your colleagues through a computer screen, inappropriate behavior should not be tolerated and should be treated as it would be if you were still in your regular working environment.
If your boss or one of your colleagues is acting or dressing inappropriately on video calls, for example, the same protocols apply, and your rights have not changed. You can legally report or file a complaint against this person.
Another issue that has arisen is employers attempting to use Zoom to either monitor their staff or require them to stay logged into the platform at all times—at times with the camera constantly switched on. This can feel both insulting, demeaning, and just plain awkward.
It’s understandable that moving from an office to a remote environment can be stressful for an employer, but is it legal to ask this of their employees?
Unfortunately, yes. While there is nothing specifically illegal against requiring employees to consistently be contactable via Zoom, refusing to comply with your employer’s working conditions can cause you trouble. Employers have no legal expectation to provide workers with privacy.
While this can be both upsetting and inconvenient, the best thing to do is to approach your employer. Explain how you feel and how this situation is negatively impacting your work productivity.
You may also want to consider asking fellow employees to send a group message or letter to better express your point.
Time Limits and Overtime
For many employees, working from home seems to have meant the introduction of far longer working hours. Many feel that their bosses expect more productivity, constant contact and availability, and instant responses to messages, calls, and emails.
While employers are within their legal rights to expect you to complete your job and can expect regular contact, they still must abide by the applicable wage and hour laws – including minimum wage, overtime, and meal and rest break requirements. Working from home does not impact your eligibility for overtime pay whatsoever.
In California, unless you fit within an exception or an exemption, this means you have to be paid for all work activities at the legally required straight time or overtime rates, and be paid premium wages when denied required breaks. If you have any inkling you’re not being properly paid, you should contact an experienced employee rights attorney for a free consultation.
Remember Your Rights
To summarize the points discussed in this article, in most instances, your employee rights still stand.
The move to remote working has been both confusing and a big adjustment for employees and employers alike, but this should not compromise your rights or well-being. The above guide to employee rights during COVID can be used to help you figure out each situation that you’re put in, and with luck, you’ll have had all of your questions answered in the absence of a workers rights lawyer. Feel free to reach out to us with any questions. We’d be happy to help.