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Employees 'too fearful' to tell bosses they should be adhering to working from home advice

This week the Tánaiste said the main reason more people are attending work now is the wider definition of essential work.

Image: Shutterstock/nito

EMPLOYEES WHO HAVE been told they cannot work from home, even though they believe they can do their jobs remotely, have expressed frustration that public health messaging is not directed more at employers.

Officials have recently re-emphasised their call on workers to work from home, where possible, as daily case numbers have crept back up. On Thursday Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said he thinks this message “really hasn’t gotten through”.

“I mean, you look at the traffic and you look at what’s going on and workplaces. People will tell you stories about car parks are full; canteens are full in workplace settings. So people are really not listening to this message and they’re meeting up unnecessarily,” he said.

“It’s absolutely clearly understood that not everybody is in a workplace situation where they can work from home. But clearly many, many people who are in situations where they can work from home are choosing not to do so and coming into the workplace and meeting up and having engagements that are leading to transmission opportunities.”

Deputy CMO Dr Ronan Glynn acknowledged that there are “two parts to the story” when it comes to attendance at work.

“There’s the employees, but there’s also the employers. And employers have a significant responsibility to take these messages on board as well and to encourage and facilitate employees insofar as is possible to work from home at the moment.”

A number of workers who spoke to TheJournal.ie said their roles could be fulfilled from home – and some were done remotely during the first lockdown – but they have been required to attend their workplaces during the current round of Level 5 restrictions. 

One woman who works for a law firm said infrastructure was put in place during the first lockdown to facilitate all staff working remotely.

However, staff have been required to attend the office since the summer. Legal services are deemed essential under the government’s guidelines and many workers in this sector are being told to come to work, even if their jobs could technically be done remotely.

“My employer doesn’t believe that anyone’s work can be done effectively from home and has therefore said that our physical presence is required in the office,” the woman said.

“The reality is that staff here absolutely could work from home. We can’t get trials on for hearing in the courts and meetings which would ordinarily have been in person are now conducted via video or conference call. We now all spend all day, every day sitting in front of computer screens or on the phone. Of course we could do this at home.”

She said colleagues are “too fearful” to raise the issue with their employer.

“I cannot express how incredibly frustrating it was to hear Dr Tony Holohan say that people are recklessly ‘choosing’ not to work from home because ‘the message hasn’t got through’,” she said.

I have done all I can in my own personal life to abide by all the restrictions that have been put in place. I hear the message about working from home but as an employee I am powerless to heed it without my employer’s support.

“Any public opprobrium for ‘full carparks and work canteens’ should be directed at employers who are refusing to allow their employees to work from home, not at employees who are frightened of losing their jobs.”

The Law Society said it is up to individual law firms to decide when they should open, basing their decision on the nature of work they do, how they do it, and the logistics of the workplace they operate within.

“The courts, also designated by government as an ‘essential service’, have remained open for urgent business,” it said. “Solicitors must attend the courts to provide access to justice for their clients, while complying with the same social distancing rules required of everyone everywhere.”

The society said it has issued guidelines to solicitors to help them to adjust to remote working, including advice on risk assessments, internal communication, accommodating vulnerable staff, reorganising workplaces and accommodating clients.

Employment law experts have said workers in the majority of cases do not have a contractual right to work remotely if their employer wants them on site.

In some sectors, there may be logistical barriers such as GDPR that prevent them from allowing at-home working. In other cases, employers may believe their workforce is less productive at home and require them to come into their workplace, despite the government advice. 

One public sector worker who is in an administrative role said some people in her team are allowed to work part of their week at home, but she has been told her role requires her to be onsite.

“My manager has refused my request to work from home even though I rely on an overcrowded bus line to come to work every day,” she said.

The woman said she has a work laptop with a virtual private network on which she has done work from her home on previous occasions, when required. She said she has to take it home with her in case she is identified as a close contact of a confirmed case – if this were to happen she would be allowed to work from home during her self-isolation period.

The woman said she was hoping to be allowed to work at her family’s home, which is in a different county, over the Christmas period but has been told she cannot do this either.

It is incredibly upsetting as I haven’t seen my family since March because of Covid but want to spend Christmas with them, and I’m having to beg for extra leave those days so I can travel back to see them – otherwise I’ll have spent the last seven months virtually alone.

An employee who works in a large retailer’s head office said his company is “selecting various workers individually and demanding they come into the office because they’re not being efficient enough at home”.

He said these workers are being told they are “essential to the business”.

“They’re saying that people have to come into the office to work the phones, but we don’t take orders over the phones and I’ve worked in businesses before where phones can be redirected to someone’s land line or mobile,” he said. “Everything else is just done via our work laptops that are given to us anyway.”

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He said he made a complaint to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) but was told that it is up to an employer to determine which roles are required to be done in the workplace.

“I get that the current government wants to give businesses slack but it’s even more a slap in the face than usual when they’re calling this a choice.”

Speaking to the Oireactas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment this week, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said there are “lots of different reasons” why there are more people going to work now than there were back in March and April.

“First of all there is a wider definition of essential work, we’re now including construction, manufacturing, international trade in services, supply chain, there’s a lot more – hundreds, thousands more people – deemed essential,” he said.

“Childcare as well, education, things that were always essential in our minds but weren’t deemed essential back in March and April that are.

“So that’s the main reason, I think, why there are more people going to work now and the traffic count counts are higher now than they would have been back in the spring.”

He said there are also people who do want to get back into their offices.

“I have heard from employers even in the public service of people being allowed back to the office for mental health reasons, because they were suffering at home for reasons around their own mental health or even issues around relationships, or being in overcrowded housing accommodation.

“So there may be lots of different reasons why people are back at work, and I don’t think the main reason is employers pressurising people to come to work when they could work from home.”

Varadkar said this is “not to say it does not happen” and he has heard examples of it himself.

“There are people who could work from home and perhaps feel they’re being pressurised into coming into the workplace when that’s unnecessary, I’ve come across some examples myself or people have contacted me about them.

“And what we’ve done to date is to point them in the direction of the WRC and that’s the appropriate body really that can deal with complaints from people who believe they can work from home who are being told that they have to come in when perhaps they don’t.”

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