For some workers, office mandates aren’t just a pain. They’re harmful

By Danielle Abril

Mike Maurer never imagined being immunocompromised could cost him his job. But the 75-year-old former luxury car salesman in Annapolis, Md., said he believes that’s exactly what happened.

Maurer had worked at the same car dealership for nearly 14 years. The dealership furloughed its sales workers after the onset of the pandemic but invited them to continue in-person sales two days later. Maurer was allowed to make sales calls remotely after being advised to do so by his doctor. But he said after new management stepped in, he was fired. The reason he was given was low sales numbers, but he thinks his remote work accommodation played into the decision. As a result, he said he’s been left “high and dry.”

“In my industry, it’s so rare for someone to work at home,” he said.

Employers across the United States are mandating employees return to the workplace after more than two years of letting them work from home during the pandemic. Workers like Maurer say return-to-work mandates may not only cause stress but potentially harm them. Some workers say remote work has allowed them to thrive, be efficient, and have access to more job opportunities. But office mandates have reintroduced old problems to the future of work, exacerbating inequities related to health conditions, disabilities, and discrimination, they say.

Hybrid work for many is messy and exhausting

For workers who have disabilities, the flexibility to work remotely might be the determining factor in whether they can even be employed. That was the case with Beate, a 2017 college graduate in Chicago who suffers from chronic pain and exhaustion that developed from a viral infection.

“The remote work door being open means you give everyone the same basic dignity,” Beate said. “I hope the world stays that open so I can have a career trajectory.”

Beate was devastated for two years, believing she might never be able to hold down a full-time job. But in late 2019, the 34-year-old landed a remote job as a marketing manager.

For workers like Rackelle Wilkinson, a clinical supervisor in Pennsylvania who works for a large health insurer, working remotely has allowed her to focus solely on work, she said. As a Black woman, she said she’s faced regular distasteful jokes, uncomfortable conversations about race and politics, and judgment based on her natural hair and skin tone — all within the workplace.

Trent, a former worker at a Texas public transportation agency, filed for an exception to work remotely from Virginia, where he worked during the height of the pandemic because he suffers from asthma and autism. He said he received a letter from human resources saying he could work remotely, but only from Texas — a move he saw as unnecessary and worrisome given Texas’s high number of coronavirus cases.

He’s now unemployed, stacked with legal bills from lawyers he hired to help with the matter, he said.

What happens if you refuse to go back to the office?

Audrey J. Murrell, a University of Pittsburgh School of Business professor who studies diversity, inclusion, mentoring, and leadership, said the pandemic didn’t create these big-picture problems but it further exposed and exacerbated them. Employers now have the opportunity to revise and update their policies to be more inclusive to all workers and their needs.

“Forcing people to come back to a pre-covid workplace is a missed opportunity to learn something,” she said. “Take a hard look at what the future of work should look like if you want to attract and retain talent.”

Workers argue that return-to-office policies also have the potential to spur inequities among the broader workforce if not thoughtfully constructed or uniformly applied. Workers point to some in-office policies they say favor some over others, creating what they deem as unnecessary hardships and higher risks for specific groups.

(Courtesy: The Washington Post)

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