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Should federal employees return to unsafe offices?

Like all employees, federal employees have the right to a safe workspace. However, you may sometimes find it difficult to enforce that right, especially when your agency claims it has already responded to your safety concerns.

This is an issue that recently became timely as government agencies started looking at bringing workers back to the office. While the OPM released guidelines that suggest a measured approach, they left much to the discretion of agency heads. So, what can you do if your agency wants you back before the office is truly safe?

Discrimination and retaliation in disguise

Many federal employees provide vital, essential services to the American public. This means they may sometimes need to work in hazardous circumstances. But it’s not always necessary for them to work from the office. Telework offers many employees a way to serve the public without exposing themselves to an unsafe workplace. In fact, recent events have proven that many workers are more productive working from home than in the office.

Accordingly, you may have reason to wonder if your agency wants you back because it needs you in the office or if it wants you back to put pressure on you. Some federal employment attorneys have heard from workers who have been ordered to work in situations where they feel exposed to illness. Many of these employees are veterans or have compromised immune systems. Yet their agencies have said if they don’t return, they risk losing their jobs and retirement.

If this happens to you, you will likely feel trapped between two bad options. On the one hand, you don’t want to risk serious illness. On the other, you don’t want to sacrifice your career. But you might have other options. Before you decide, you can explore whether your orders are fair and legal. It’s worth asking, “Are your orders firmly rooted in the law and the performance of your duties? Or are they designed to push you out?” An early push to an unsafe office may signal an act of discrimination or retaliation in disguise.

Ask before you sign

In chaotic times, everyone must adapt. One day, you’re working in the office. The next, you’re working from home. You look to your email for the new day’s directions, and it’s natural to want to keep pace with your agency’s shifting policies.

You want to follow directions and act responsibly, but when your directions suddenly demand you risk your health, you can pause. You serve your agency and the American public, but your agency must also fulfill its obligations to you. You deserve a safe workspace, and you can explore whether an order is fair and legal before you sign any employment options.

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