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Covid crisis: Do you have to return to the office? Image Credit: Shutterstock

Whether you’re sick of working from home and can’t wait to get back to the office, or if you’ve loved your WFH bubble and are loathe to burst it, the easing of restrictions means that companies can slowly start to restore normality in their workforce.

But what if you are worried about your health and fear that returning to your working environment may put you at risk of catching the virus? We spoke to Natalie Jones, Senior Associate in the Employment & Incentives department at UAE law firm Al Tamimi & Company, to find out what the situation is with regard to pregnant women and their partners and mothers of young children.

Can an employee be made to return back to their office workplace against their will if they do not feel safe to be in a public environment?

"Yes, in theory at least," says employment lawyer Natalie Jones, "employers in the essential industries (health sector, food industries etc.) may require employees to attend at office premises despite any requests to the contrary."

Non-essential industries may also require employees to attend the workplace, adds Jones, subject to implementing precautions and restricting the number of employees (and customers) in the workplace in line with government requirements.

I'm a working mum - do I have to return to work in the office?

"Priority for remote working should continue to be given to certain categories of employees (which includes pregnant women and female employees with children in the ninth grade or below)," says Natalie Jones. This means that if you are the mother of a child in the ninth grade or younger then you may have an argument to request to remain working from home. "However, ultimately, if employees are unable to carry out their role from home, they can be required to attend the workplace," says Jones.

What if I feel my workplace is not safe for me to return to?

If you are not comfortable returning to your workplace because you are worried about catching the virus then it’s worth noting as a general point that employers in the UAE are responsible for providing employees with “adequate protection against hazards of occupational injuries and diseases that may occur during the work”. "Failure to do so could lead to a claim under the Labour Law as well as a claim for personal injury, depending of course on the severity of the injury,"points our Al Tamimi & Company employment lawyer Natalie Jones. "In the current circumstances, employers are likely to be meeting their obligations if they can demonstrate that they are following government and best practice guidance in terms of dealing with any risks relating to the virus. Clearly, requiring employees to return to the office where they express specific concerns regarding their welfare, could create exposure for an employer where those employees go on to contract the virus."

Despite the above, the recommendation at this stage is still to require employees to attend the workplace only if they are unable to carry out their tasks from home and only if absolutely required, adds Jones. "However, it is clear from developments over the weekend that the intention is to continue gradually easing restrictions and therefore it will be increasingly difficult for employees to refuse to return to their workplace."

I'm pregnant - do I or my husband have to return to the office?

Although pregnant women should be given priority in respect of home working, this does not extend to their partners, says Jones: "As mentioned above, certain employees should be given priority in respect of home working. Those employees include pregnant women, those over the age of 60, anyone with chronic or respiratory conditions or women with young children. The priority does not extend beyond that to, for example, employees who have partners who are pregnant or have chronic conditions. However, I would expect most employers to take a flexible approach where possible to ensure that the employees who are in a household with vulnerable individuals are also considered for remote working arrangements where possible."

We have a vulnerable family member and I am worried about my husband returning to the office. Is there anything we can do?

"There is no specific guidance for this group," says employment lawyer Natalie Jones. "Ultimately, as mentioned, I would expect that most employers would give consideration to specific circumstances which could expose an employee’s family unnecessarily. Of course, the extent to which employees will give this consideration may decrease as restrictions ease."

Read more:

11 Things you didn't know about your maternity leave rights in the UAE

Pregnant and working in the UAE: Could I lose my job?

11 Covid-crisis coping strategies to help parents hold it together