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COVID: As Bay Area Workplaces Reopen, Return To Offices Already Posing Legal Questions

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – As offices in the Bay Area and across the country reopen, the return to workplaces a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is already posing some legal questions.

New York City ordered all of its remote workers to return to the office on Monday. Employers here in the Bay Area are taking their time doing that, but it does pose a few questions that may be settled in the courts: How much authority does a boss have to order someone back to the office and under what conditions?

Alex Durbin works in San Francisco and said his friends and family don't mind going back to the workplace. Well, sort of.

"They're ready to go back but they don't want to do it full time," he said. "I think that's something that is going to be brought to the workforce for the long haul."

When asked what happens if employers try to force the issue? "You gotta stick it to The Man, I guess," Durbin responded

It is becoming the next big struggle in the COVID-19 arena, can employers require people to return to the office and can they mandate they be vaccinated?

Employment attorney Michael Bernick said, by law, bosses can impose vaccine mandates, except for people with strong religious objections or a legitimate medical condition preventing it. For them, a reasonable accommodation would have to be made, if possible.

But that may not be the end of it.

"Well, people are contesting it already," Bernick told KPIX 5, "So, the courts are already getting involved. We'll see. With greater guidance, again, I think we'll get a more nuanced view."

Alexis Alvarez represents workers with disabilities for the group Legal Aid at Work. She acknowledges that bosses have the power to demand vaccinations and a return to work.

"I also very strongly believe that employers should be following their legal obligations and that having that balance makes space for all workers in our workplaces," Alvarez said.

Currently, rules for returning to work are coming from state and federal workplace regulators. But the labor attorneys agree, those are guidelines that will later be refined as they are challenged in the courts.

At this point, most Bay Area employers are not rushing to take a hard line about returning to the workplace.

Jim Brown, a partner at the Duane/Morris law firm, thinks there may be a practical reason for that.

"Well, employers are going to have to strike a balance," Brown said. "If they have a business where it's difficult to find workers and they're too strict in what they're requiring, they're not going to have enough workers. Because people will simply find another job if they don't want to return to the workplace."

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