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Dear ReWorker: Some of My Employees Don’t Want to Return to Work—What Should I Do?

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

Dear ReWorker,

We’ve been given the go-ahead from the government to re-open our business. The only problem is that the employees don’t want to come back. The hourly staff is making more on unemployment than they do working, and the exempt staff has been working from home and aren’t thrilled about returning to the office. Is there anything I can do to get our staff to come back?


Flying Solo


Dear Flying Solo,

First off, know that many other HR professionals are in a similar situation. A recent poll found that 45% of employers are struggling to accommodate reluctant employees. And while you could just offer everybody a big raise so that they earn more at work than they do on unemployment, I suspect that’s not exactly in your budget. It also probably isn’t the main source of hesitation—which, I imagine, is fear. When you’re tackling this issue, it’s best to go through the most common reasons people don’t want to come back and address them one-by-one.

1) They Get More Money on Unemployment

Let’s start with the monetary issue you mentioned. Unemployment payments are generally terrible, but the federal government temporarily allotted each person an additional $600 per week. The key word here is "temporarily." As of right now, this is scheduled to end in July—and then what? It drops to regular state unemployment, which, as I mentioned, isn’t good.

Prepare to let your employees know that, unfortunately, you can’t hold their jobs for them. They are welcome not to come back—in truth, everyone is making difficult decisions about what’s best for them and their families—but you’ll need to replace them. Technically, you can notify the unemployment board that you’ve offered them their old job again, and they’ll get zero financial assistance, but certain companies are opting not to do this.

2) They Want to Work From Home

Take a step back for a minute. How has remote work been going for your organization? If productivity has remained relatively high, then perhaps you should consider making it a permanent arrangement. Twitter and Square both recently announced that they were giving some employees the option to work at home full-time indefinitely.

Obviously, this won’t work for everyone. Some jobs can be done remotely quite easily, while others necessitate being physically present. For instance, a plant supervisor may have been able to do a ton of organizing and planning from home, but when production starts up again, she’ll need to be on-site. Perhaps a different schedule will work in this case—it’s at least worth considering to alleviate the anxiety of many workers. Most employees would be thrilled with the extra flexibility to work from home even a couple of days a week. See if that can work for you.

3) They Have Legitimate Health Concerns

This is a virus that no one seems to be able to pin down. There’s the ever-growing list of symptoms, from prolonged cough and fever to loss of smell and taste and "COVID toes." Some people are asymptomatic, while others lose their lives. There’s still so much we don’t know—and likely won’t for some time.

In the meantime, it’s critical to make sure your business is carefully following all CDC and state guidelines for re-opening. Reassure employees that you are working to keep them and their families safe. If someone has a health concern, consider a leave of absence. If your business has fewer than 500 people, you’re subject to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which can help pay employees who are sick, have been exposed or need to care for someone else who has been.

4) They Are Struggling With Child Care

Many schools don’t appear to be re-opening, and summer camps are a mystery right now. Again, if you have fewer than 500 people, you’re subject to the FFCRA and required to let people who have children at home take protected paid leave to care for them (yes, the act covers both health and child care complications). Let your employees know that you’ll be following the law and help walk them through how it applies to their particular situation.

It’s also a good time to revisit the flexible scheduling arrangements I mentioned earlier. If your employee can get their work done, but it tends to be during more "off" hours because they’re watching children, explore this path. Just make sure there’s enough communication and overlapping hours to allow for quality collaboration with coworkers, if needed.

If you go through all of these options and they still don’t want to come back, genuinely thank them for their service and let them go. While you’ll have to recruit and train new hires, you’ll likely be able to find individuals who want to be there. Unemployment rates are astronomically high right now (and will likely continue to rise). And if Walmart was able to hire 200,000 people in a little more than a month, you can hopefully find new people as well.

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