Ethics around different work policies for medically vulnerable?
May 12, 2020 11:13 PM   Subscribe

I work for a public university in the US. My employer is in the very early stages of crafting a phased re-opening policy as we navigate a possible return to work while still dealing with coronavirus. My questions here are more about employees, not students. In the draft policy I've seen, there's an intention to let as many folks continue to work from home as long as is practical in early stages; there was also a suggestion that, in some stages, employees who are medically vulnerable or who have family members who are medically vulnerable could continue to work from home even while others are back on campus. Can you help me think through the ethics of this?

I'm asking this anonymously so I can be candid without sharing unofficial information about my specific employer. It may be that this policy, which is only in an early draft stage, I think, might change before anything is final. And I have no guesses as to timing.

On the one hand, it seems wise and compassionate to allow people who are medically vulnerable, or who have family members who are medically vulnerable, to work from home until things are safer (until we have a vaccine? That part isn't defined yet, but it's not the focus of my question). On the other hand, I see a lot of questions and complications that could arise:

1. How do you define who is medically vulnerable? Presumably this would be done in consultation with the local health department, but this seems like a very complicated thing to define once you get away from the most obvious situations. A related question: what if someone is medically vulnerable but wants to be at work? Do they get to decide for themselves?

2. Would this policy then require employees to disclose medical conditions of themselves or family members to employers? Is that legal? Would you have to get proof? (Is it my employer's business, for example, if my spouse has a respiratory condition?)

3. Does this policy place an undue burden on those who aren't medically vulnerable? Or is that a totally reasonable burden? Let's say that we have ten people who regularly work at a service point for four hours each, but five are either medically vulnerable or have a household member who is medically vulnerable. That means that forty hours are now being covered by five people, who then must work eight hours each, exposing them to greater risk. Even if we reduce the hours of the service point, it seems like the five people who are at work are facing a pretty significantly increased risk by being around people generally, because even if you're not medically vulnerable, you're not necessarily immune.

4. In a nutshell, is working from home an appropriate accommodation in this situation? Or does it have problematic ethical implications and a more ethical approach would be not to return to work until everyone (almost everyone?) can also return?

I think this policy is an attempt to get us back to "normal" and the different proposed policy for medically vulnerable folks is a way to justify resuming activities before it's safe for everyone. I have some concerns about that and would appreciate others' sharing their thoughts on both the specific ways you could or could not implement this policy and the broader ethical question.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (38 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'll answer this based on my individual circumstances.

1. My primary care physician has defined me to be medically vulnerable. We are presently under required Work From Home, but just in case I got a note from my PCP to give to HR because HR invited vulnerable employees to have a doctor's note on file.

2. In this case and also in a previous case I disclosed medical conditions to HR because my employers required disclosure in order to receive a benefit I wanted. While it may not be my employer's HR department business to know if my notional spouse has a respiratory condition it's fair to say it would be if I wanted to use certain types of leave, for example. Even if it is not my employer's business, disclosing the condition might make my taking multiple days or weeks of sick time easier.

3. I'm sure my coworkers and I are burdens on each other in multiple ways, but I wouldn't call this particular burden any more burdensome than people who frequently take time off for other reasons such as maternity/paternity leave or to care for sick relatives. My employer give us sick leave, and they expect us to use it, especially now.

Further, you may call me a bad person (and I don't care), but my health is more important to me than the health of my coworkers. My coworkers who are half my age and don't have my underlying conditions can go into the office, and I can work from home. When they break a leg from skiing or get injured rock climbing, I'll cover for them.

4. Abso-freaking-lutely it is appropriate. It's certainly more of an appropriate accommodation to me than having "Here lies Rob Rockets, he could have worked from home and avoided the 'Rona but he was more concerned about the ethics" etched on my tombstone.
posted by Rob Rockets at 11:47 PM on May 12 [15 favorites]


1. How do you define who is medically vulnerable?
The person's primary medical person does that. If they are vulnerable but want to be at work, they don't supply their workplace with their primary medical person's opinion/documentation.

2. Would you have to get proof?
Doctor's certificates (as they are called in my neck of the woods) don't disclose the condition, just the limitations/requirements. They could also state the limitations of someone due to the medical conditions of other household members. "It is necessary that Jane work from home and limit their exposure to other people in order to protect vulnerable family members."

3. Does this policy place an undue burden on those who aren't medically vulnerable?
No. It places a burden on the employer to ensure their staff have all the protective measures available. Medically vulnerable people are not responsible for the actions or inactions of their employers when it comes to protecting staff colleagues.

4. In a nutshell, is working from home an appropriate accommodation in this situation?
Yes. The ethics of people's return to work is in the hands of the employers. It is their ethics in question, not the vulnerable peoples.
...a more ethical approach would be not to return to work until everyone (almost everyone?) can also return?
The most ethical approach would be not to return to the workplace until the pandemic is declared over by WHO.
posted by Thella at 12:19 AM on May 13 [12 favorites]


You are asking several legal questions, so you need to consult a lawyer (MeFi Wiki) to get advice that is tailored to the laws that apply in your jurisdiction. However, your HR department is likely the best resource to start with for questions about which forms need to be completed and what questions can and cannot be asked. In addition, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers "free consulting services for state and local government employers, including one-on-one consultation about all aspects of job accommodations, ADA compliance assistance, and referral to helpful resources" and information about COVID-19.

As to the broader ethical questions, I've posted some links to sources in previous Asks that you may want to review to better understand the risks that exist for everyone, and why it won't work to just isolate the "vulnerable." Similarly, as to the question of whether anyone is immune, I've posted some links about how it may take years for the science to provide answers.
posted by katra at 12:32 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


I work for a Federal agency and what my office did was sent out a form stating that if we wished to identify as high risk based on (bulleted list of standards) which would put us at high-risk as determined by the CDC we needed to reply and let our director know. We did not have to say which risk factor we had nor provide any kind of documentation. As a high risk person, I will continue to telework 100% of the time when others move to 50% or more in-office. There is no timeline as to when, that would change as of right now.
posted by stormygrey at 1:44 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


employees who are medically vulnerable or who have family members who are medically vulnerable

Just about nobody of age to be legally employed full time in any capacity is medically invulnerable to covid-19, and the fact that you write the question (and at least one person above answers it) as if this is true shows that nobody in a position to write policy is qualified to do so.

4. In a nutshell, is working from home an appropriate accommodation in this situation?


Yes, for everyone.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:46 AM on May 13 [18 favorites]


I agree with all your concerns. We don't understand this disease well enough to know who truly is at low vs high risk. We know the aggregate statistics, but plenty of people without identifiable risk factors have died.
posted by slidell at 3:10 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


OP, you seem to be worried that people will take advantage and continue to work from home. I bet you have a lot of coworkers who are desperate to get out of the house, even if it’s just for a couple days a week. Yes, there’s a danger associated with going to work and with interacting with the public (if the public even wants to interact with you!) but people do dangerous jobs all the time. That’s why we have firefighters and a fishing industry and mining.

If not enough people are willing to do the necessary in-office work, that’s a sign that the administration needs to make the in-person work safer or better-paid or otherwise more attractive.

As to whether working from home is a reasonable accommodation (under US law) it depends on the work as much as the person - work from home is likely not a reasonable accommodation for a cafeteria cashier. It might be reasonable for a reference librarian, if they can get most of their interactions done virtually. It’s almost certainly reasonable for someone in Development who mostly just makes phone calls.

It is definitely not legal in the US to tell people they’re not allowed to do work because of their medical condition.
posted by mskyle at 4:09 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


3. Does this policy place an undue burden on those who aren't medically vulnerable?

Consider also the potential burden on those who are "vulnerable", who may be excluded from opportunities available to their colleagues or feel compelled to decline the accommodations offered if they fear for their job security.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 4:22 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


I strongly suspect that this is going to be a huge battleground in universities, because while there are some people who are clearly medically vulnerable and some people who are chomping at the bit to go back, there are a lot of people who are somewhere in the middle. I’m a middle-aged person with asthma: is that enough to allow me to work from home? (If not, I might quit. This job is not worth dying for, especially since we now know it’s possible to do it without going to the office.) What about my co-worker who had no medical vulnerabilities but who is a single parent of a toddler and can only make that work because her medically-vulnerable parents provide childcare? There aren’t clear delineations, and I think there are going to be huge battles about who gets protected and who doesn’t. And that’s going to hit staff and contingent faculty especially hard, because we are relatively powerless and because the institutions view us as expendable. Now would probably be a good time to unionize if you’re not in a union already.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:27 AM on May 13 [19 favorites]


In my jurisdiction, the answers to Q1 and Q2 are covered by government guidance. For example there's an existing specific definition of vulnerable, and of extremely vulnerable.

On Q3, yes it places a burden on people who are able to come in to the workplace. Your employer should be looking at what changes they need to make so that burden is not unreasonable as well as making sure they keep staff safe. This might mean that they need to provide a reduced or more limited service than they normally would. Otherwise, in an ethical sense, this is no better or worse than having to work when your coworker is off sick or on maternity/paternity leave. It's just how it is.

On Q4, you ask "In a nutshell, is working from home an appropriate accommodation in this situation? Or does it have problematic ethical implications and a more ethical approach would be not to return to work until everyone (almost everyone?) can also return?"

While you are slowly moving out of lockdown, if people can work from home then they should because at a population level it helps reduce risk overall, helping protect everyone else. Where work cannot be done from home, just because a specific individual cannot come into the workplace does not mean everyone should stay at home.

I don't think it's at all unreasonable for an organisation to minimise the number of people who they have to keep safe in the workplace by rearranging duties so that some people can work full-time from home, even if they wouldn't normally be able to. This would help because it would mean that those who cannot come into the workplace still have full-time work, and the fewer people in the workplace the more they can keep their distance and minimise risk.

You might feel that it is too early to be slowly moving out of lockdown at all. That's really a different question with different answers. Delaying the point at which you start to emerge doesn't change the ethical questions you ask it just puts them off until a later date.

Your employer could, of course, choose to effectively remain closed for business instead until there is no more coronavirus circulating. That is essentially betting the future of the organisation that it will be safe to emerge from any restriction very quickly. If you are in the US or the UK (or Spain or Italy), I do not think that is the most likely outcome, and I would not want to gamble all of my employees' future security on that being true.
posted by plonkee at 4:27 AM on May 13


In your point #3, the role itself sounds like it doesn't accommodate working from home. There's lots of jobs like that, both in and out of a university setting (who do you think is restocking your grocery shelves?) -- if that's the case, employees who aren't physically present would probably need to be in some sort of leave status, similar to parental leave. Maybe roles get shuffled, so Fred who used to be at the front desk is now manning phone lines from home, but if you're working from home, you'd still need to be working, you know?

I know some folks don't believe that work from home is work. Sometimes they resort to spycams on their employees' computers. Sometimes they make snide comments on Zoom calls about how they are the only one in the office who "hasn't missed a day of work." OP, don't be one of those people.

You framed your question in terms of ethics. Frankly, a phased re-opening is probably safer and therefore ethically preferable to an all-or-none. The idea is that if you notice cases start to go up in Phase 1, you can shut things down again fast and save lives.
posted by basalganglia at 4:32 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


1. How do you define who is medically vulnerable?

At my university, currently and as far as I know there is no plan to change this, you're medically vulnerable if you say you are. No one is demanding documentation. I suppose that if at some point 95% of staff are claiming to be medically vulnerable, they're going to have to put some kind of system into place, but the approach right now seems to be to trust staff to know what is appropriate and necessary for them. Like any policy, I imagine individual departments may choose to be a little flexible about their interpretation; my boss has been very clear that within our group, we will take an approach that puts our health and families first, and if any of us feel we need to stay at home past when the university decides to reopen, she'll approve it, no questions asked.

2. Would this policy then require employees to disclose medical conditions of themselves or family members to employers? Is that legal? Would you have to get proof? (Is it my employer's business, for example, if my spouse has a respiratory condition?)

Can't answer this one, it seems to be clearly a lawyer question. But if I were implementing such a policy, then my first pass subject to counsel review would be something like any other sort of medical accommodation or leave - require the employee to disclose what accomnodations they need, with a similar level of proof, but not require specific diagnoses unless absolutely necessary. We don't need to reinvent the wheel here; there are already agreed-upon standards and requirements for disclosing medical information to get accommodations, that we can build off of and that are already (rightly or wrongly) agreed to be basically ethical in the workplace.

3. Does this policy place an undue burden on those who aren't medically vulnerable? Or is that a totally reasonable burden?

Probably, yes. On the other hand it also makes the workplace safer for those who do have to be there, by reducing some of their contact points with other people. As coworkers, we burden each other in various ways. We have medical conditions separate from COVID-19 that require accommodation. We have family members to care for. We go on vacation and we have children and we work weird hours so that we can take classes and we have shitty personal days/weeks/months where we are not at our best and other people take up our slack. And then we do the same for them. Again, conceptually, I see this as part of just - being in a society with other people who have differing medical needs, that we already have workplace structures to support and accommodate. That said, that's only true if the employers are taking appropriate measures to make the workplace as safe as possible for those who are there in person. Making it possible to distance, stepping up cleaning, staggering schedules, holding off as long as possible before having anyone back and then moving people back slowly, etc. If your employer is just throwing all the healthy people to the wolves and leaving them to sort out their own safety, that sucks and is a huge burden. But that's a separate question from whether they're taking the appropriate steps for people with medical issues. They should be taking care of all their employees, which will mean different things with different employee groups.

4. In a nutshell, is working from home an appropriate accommodation in this situation? Or does it have problematic ethical implications and a more ethical approach would be not to return to work until everyone (almost everyone?) can also return?

Yes, I see it as an appropriate accommodation for many people. The specifics would depend on the person and the job responsibility, so any such policy is going to have to have some room for interpretation in each case. But I think it's a good and ethical policy to strive for.

Whenever a university re-opens, it's going to need to be some kind of phased re-opening. It would be worse and less safe to just say "everyone's back on Monday, let's go." Decisions have to be made about who is there first, and it makes sense and is ethical for those decisions to include risk levels, job responsibilities, etc.

Maybe it's too soon for anyone to be back at all; that's a different question and a really valid one. But if it is, that's not the fault of the people with disabilities and medical vulnerabilities, and the answer is to focus on that issue and develop a better policy around that.
posted by Stacey at 4:52 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


I work in an industry where WFH isn't a viable option. Management largely considers us expendable. My live in partner is extremely immunocompromised and at high risk from.... Most things, in all honesty. And I'm middle aged with chronic asthma.

I would be thrilled if my company made any efforts to provide some sort of WFH program, just on the ethical grounds of not making me feel like I have to choose between the job and significant health risks.

Personally, I'd file whatever paperwork needed to get it done.
posted by Jacen at 4:59 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


My large public university has not yet announced return plans for staff (officially we're on phase 1 of reopening as a state, but HR policy is still "for the love of muffins, everyone that possibly can, please stay home"; also, the 10 and 11 month employees are getting ready to rotate off for the summer, which I'm sure is a relief for everyone, so they've got time to sort out staff side).

However, for the fall, any faculty that wants to shift to online teaching can - no questions asked, no documentation needed, and they're getting folks support over the summer so it can be good online teaching, not the "emergency remote teaching" that people have been doing. I think this is the only compassionate and ethical response (and we've got time to plan this time so student who don't want online classes can get shuffled around, assuming we don't decide in July that everything is going online).
posted by joycehealy at 6:08 AM on May 13


The policy is reasonable. The timing of the implementation of the policy is (your employer's) ethical challenge. Just as this situation had a (rapid, exponential) curve up, it will have a (slow, laborious) curve back down. Even in the optimistic scenario that there is a vaccine there will be a long period of time during which availability (and possibly even effectiveness) will be uneven and uncertain. So, the policy needs to address a world where individual and collective safety is uncertain, uneven, and at least partially unknown.

Given those parameters, these sorts of accommodations are ethical. The larger question is what is the ethical time to bring back any sort of in-place and customer/public facing work. That is going to be highly situational, being both location and workplace specific. Since you mention you are with a US secondary education institution, I'd note that challenge appears particularly fraught as many schools will need to choose between putting employees at some level of risk, or shutting down entirely and laying those employees off. Reasonably people will disagree on the decisions, and thoughtful people will continue to adjust their opinions and expectations and the situation and our knowledge change.
posted by meinvt at 6:10 AM on May 13


I too work at a university. I have gotten accommodations for temporary work from home pre-covid for immunity reasons. I suspect my workplace will also create a reopening plan which encourages immunocompromised people to work from home.

It's important to remember that this policy is probably not much different from the accommodation policy that was already in place. What has changed is what's considered a "reasonable" accommodation. The mechanics - requesting an accommodation from HR, providing paperwork from a doctor - is probably the same. (As others mentioned, when requesting accommodations, you usually only disclose your condition to HR, not your supervisor, and HR keeps it confidential.)

The policy and mechanics are the same as usual. At my employer, employees were regularly getting accommodations and leaves before covid, and sometimes that meant putting more strain on their coworkers. Supervisors always have to base their expectations on the situation, like how many staff are available to work in person, whether or not the external situation is extraordinary. As you pointed out, what's different is the scale. I think what will help our situation is that administration gives some guidance to management that it's OK to prioritize safety at the expense of performance.

Another point to consider is that many universities have hiring freezes, so it is in their best interest to keep their existing employees safe, happy, and willing to work. It may impact them more to have an employee leave and not be able to replace them, than to provide accommodations for the employee.
posted by beyond_pink at 6:21 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


Is it fair that less vulnerable (but not invulnerable) people have to do more to protect the vulnerable in our society? I mean, from an ethical and cultural point of view, that's the big question, right? Is it fair that my taxes go to pay for benefits that other people get but not me? Is it fair that I pay for the schools even though I don't have a kid in them?

It's like war: if you have to fight a war, is it at all fair who ends up fighting? Not really, but assuming the war is happening anyway, you just come up with the best solution you can. It still means a lot of people are in danger. It's not fair either way.

The problem is the question of whether the war is necessary. If it's a pointless war (or public opening) that many people don't agree with, the risks they're being asked to take are meaningless. But if you start your analysis of what's fair from the point of view that the war/opening is happening no matter what, then the group goal is to fill out the skeleton crew with those who are least vulnerable. Again, not invulnerable.

If someone has to do the job, yes, the ethical plan is to make it the person who is at lowest risk. The real ethical question is whether someone has to do this job at this moment in time.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:26 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


I believe you’re overthinking it.

If someone reports they’re medically vulnerable, they’re medically vulnerable. Trying to force them to come when they believe that will accomplish nothing but strife.

If the burden of coming in is a non-trivial risk for medically sound workers then you shouldn’t have anyone at this point. If the burden is simply that other people get accommodations and they don’t, that ethical question has long been settled.

Working from home is the most appropriate solution for medically compromised people. Going outside, potentially having to use public transportation, etc. is just not workable.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:34 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Does this policy place an undue burden on those who aren't medically vulnerable?

I live with a medically vulnerable senior whose health conditions are well managed and probably will live another decade, but the rest of my family is not that medically vulnerable other than my husband being over 50 and me having old scars in my lungs. So my ethical position around work (my industry is probably DOA so it may be 'any job' for me) is one I've been thinking about a lot.

If I didn't have my MIL living with me, I think for sure I would be fine working where others need to work from home. And we are looking at our space to see if I can anyway. I am not taking the personal risk lightly here, I just believe that it may be my time to step up just as firefighters and nurses and fishermen have done for me my entire life.

What I would want from my employer would be PPE for me and clients/students, serious cleaning procedures, shortened hours, and a stated policy to examine every service and make large changes to protect me and others as well. So I would be looking for a policy that protects me as much as possible given that I'm going to come in - by-appointment contactless pick up of papers and textbooks, asking people to send information or Zoom information in advance, handwashing stations, storage for people's belongings in appropriate zones...you get the idea.

I don't know if this helps with the policy that you're reviewing, but that's what I would look for - that the employer is not dividing its people among "vulnerable" and "invulnerable" but "too vulnerable to come physically in" and "vulnerable but okay to come in given a commitment to workplace safety."
posted by warriorqueen at 6:46 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


I also think you’re overthinking it. I don’t see how this is any different from requesting accommodations for any other situation, whether that be a disability, caregiving, etc.

I’ve had a non-supervisor co-worker give me shit about the “burden” I put on them by calling off to take my sick kid to the pediatrician. Do NOT be that guy.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:50 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


My CEO said, I think all the way back in March, that when this pandemic is over -- as in we're not doing any countermeasures because it is done -- once we've reached that point as a society and as a company, then every employee will be allowed to make their own decision about when to come back into work, and they will not have to "prove" or even provide a reason for wanting to stay in a WFH status. If that means we become a 100% work-from-home company, then so be it. And I believe him.

You would not believe what an immense relief this was, and I'm currently a healthy abled person with no immuno-vulnerable people in my household. Just the idea that the company will be flexible, and that the leadership realizes that I can do work on my terms, really lifted a weight I didn't know I was carrying in those first few weeks.

I know that not every workplace can be 100% WFH indefinitely. I know that not even my workplace is really going to do that. But the fact that the starting point of the process was "We trust you and we believe in you" was a really great message.
posted by Etrigan at 6:56 AM on May 13 [13 favorites]


Let's say that we have ten people who regularly work at a service point for four hours each, but five are either medically vulnerable or have a household member who is medically vulnerable. That means that forty hours are now being covered by five people, who then must work eight hours each, exposing them to greater risk.

It's time for employers to think about what exposure is truly necessary for any of their employees. Why insist on resuming business modes from before the pandemic?

Rather than focus on the vulnerable people as the cause for these 5 employees now working the all the service point hours, each and every department on your campus should be considering radical shifts in how they approach these kinds of tasks. How can they provide the service in different modes? Do they need that many in-person hours? What forms and information can they move to on-line and self-serve?

What are the ethics of an institution that refuses to rethink and be flexible about what is truly necessary now?
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 7:07 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]


Also, every university is grappling with these same questions. I hope your employer is consulting with all their peers on best practices and policy crafting because there's no reason these decisions should be made in a vacuum. I know universities have different cultures and needs but this is pretty ground level stuff that could be shared among institutions. Encourage your university to collaborate.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 7:11 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


I don’t see how this is any different from requesting accommodations for any other situation, whether that be a disability, caregiving, etc.

Possibly because those without a disability/pre-existing condition or children to care for can also die and have died from coronavirus. It's different than not being able to work past 5 because of daycare pickup or not being able to lift 20 pounds because of a past injury. Any of us can die from coronavirus. People over 100 have recovered. People in their 30s have died.

If physical workplaces are replenished only with 18-49 year olds without people to care for or who can't get a good doctor's note, that's unethical to me. But I'll be the first to admit I don't have the background/language to exactly explain why. Hopefully someone else can.
posted by kimberussell at 7:59 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


Any of us can die from coronavirus, but even with our still limited understanding it's clear that some of us are at considerably higher risk of dying from it than others who contract it. In a situation where risk has to be confronted, minimizing the exposure of those for whom the risk is considerably greater as opposed to others isn't unethical. As others have said, it's the priors that get troublesome--does risk have to be confronted?
posted by praemunire at 8:28 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


Yeah, everyone is at some risk, but that’s not the question. The questions the OP asked were about how employers would determine vulnerability and what that would entail in terms of disclosure. And there’s no reason to think that would be different from other scenarios. Everyone gets distracted and procrastinates sometimes, but spending too much time chatting at the watercooler is generally not sufficient to get a special accommodation for ADHD. Or maybe it is at some companies; that’s not the point. The point is that the organization has a pre-existing procedure for granting special accommodations, and pre-existing rules about disclosure. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:28 AM on May 13


My company is not a university but it using the same wording (a lot of this is coming from a single playbook, I think McKinsey's) and it is completely based on self-reporting, and we have additional wording about being "uncomfortable" about working in an office. (Because maybe you're not especially vulnerable but you also know that Ted in Sales is going to refuse to comply with office policies and you don't want to share a ventilation system with him.)

Are some companies going to be shitty about this and make you "prove" your need to work from home? Of course, because some people are assholes. Does this also give employers a way to enforce certain boundaries about "reasonable" accommodation? It does, for ill and for good (are people putting in requests for "necessary" 50-inch monitors for WFH? yeah, Ted in Sales is because he wants a new TV).

Hopefully your org's policy team has a way to ask questions; I think you should submit this one and get clarification.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:31 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


If physical workplaces are replenished only with 18-49 year olds without people to care for or who can't get a good doctor's note, that's unethical to me. But I'll be the first to admit I don't have the background/language to exactly explain why. Hopefully someone else can.

How about Sure, the Velociraptors Are Still On the Loose, But That’s No Reason Not to Reopen Jurassic Park?

Another ethical point is that I would discourage the use of the term "vulnerable" in all of your documents and encourage the use of less misleading language, including because it seems to encourage people to feel like they are more safe from harm if they're not in that group, even though everyone is vulnerable to terrible outcomes from covid, regardless of their underlying health condition. Some people have health conditions that are correlated with a greater risk of terrible outcomes, but not having those conditions isn't a magical blanket of safety.
posted by katra at 9:47 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


If the burden of coming in is a non-trivial risk for medically sound workers then you shouldn’t have anyone at this point.
I mean, I think it's pretty clear that the burden is non-trivial for everyone. The risk of dying is relatively small for young people with no underlying medical conditions. The risk of being incapacitated for six weeks, possibly becoming sick enough to require hospitalization and other traumatic and expensive treatment, and having ongoing and as-of-yet poorly-understood long-term health effects is not low at all.

I guess that, the more I think about it, my issue is that I don't really trust my institution to care about the lives and safety of staff, and I'm worried that they'll open before it's safe to do so. There are a lot of pressures, both internal and external, to have in-person classes in the Fall. And one way that they can address concerns is to say that medically vulnerable people can stay home, which they will then use as an example of how they're doing this carefully and responsibly, with due concern for the safety of workers. But it's still not safe for anyone, and I'm not convinced they can make it safe for anyone. Of course people with disabilities should get accommodations, but in this situation, that's being used as a distraction from the fact that they're planning to take unacceptable risks with the safety of everyone else.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:40 AM on May 13 [11 favorites]


IDK if this really belongs here, but I think we're going to see an interesting reckoning here as people grapple with the fact that people who "look" young and healthy (diabetes, asthma, and many other illnesses) are high risk. I think we're going to see some ugly questioning and insinuations of who's allowed to stay home in the months to come.
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:51 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


I would wonder about your university's liability if somebody has a job that can be performed from home, isn't considered medically vulnerable and so isn't allowed to work from home even though others with the same role are allowed to do so, contracts coronavirus at work, and dies. I assume the legal team is being consulted early on in this process!
posted by phoenixy at 12:07 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Ground level ethics talk.

My cousin is an electrical site engineer for a huge company. He's vulnerable, extremely so, and has been away/work from home for months. If they try to pressure him, well, he'll find other employment or not work because it's not a risk he's willing to take.

He recently told me that he spoke to some other employees and a mutual co-worker of his and theirs has COVID in a bad way and now has pneumonia in both lungs with a non-great outlook. To top it off, said sick co-worker also ostensibly gave it to his wife who was in active cancer treatment and has decreased immune function. She's on a ventilator and, to be honest, is not expected to survive.

That co-worker, the one that's sick and likely got his wife sick, was forced back to work under threat of his job being taken away. He had to go to work because, well, his wife has cancer and the treatment was covered by his work provided insurance. So, he went back to work and now look at where they are.

I don't see how providing allowances for vulnerable populations wouldn't be ethical. Otherwise you're basically condemning them to a unwinnable situation.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:09 PM on May 13 [5 favorites]


In a way, you are asking if the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) of 1990 which covers employment accommodations in Title 1 and FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) of 1993 which covers dependant family members’ health and military service as well as the employee’s personal health conditions are ethical, and they have been in place for decades. Chances are, as a public university, there are enough employees that HR has existing processes that cover privacy and confidentiality that will require only mild tweaking to adjust to COVID19 processes.

Documentation from health care providers can go directly to HR to support privacy and supervisors and chairs should respect when remote work is approved as an accommodation or leave is applied when remote work is not available. HR is also very, very familiar with people who might take unfair advantage, however, if someone is not performing with telework, there are consequences. If only half of their work is eligible for telework, they may have leave applied to half of their schedule. If all of the work cannot be performed remotely, then leave is the most generous option. Once leave is used up, it can move toward options that make claiming unemployment viable, as furlough and layoff can come into play, as neither ADA or FMLA cover unreasonable situations or indefinite leave.

Both laws support the inclusion of employees with disabilities and serious health conditions as well as employees of all genders who have family obligations. Ignoring either condition can adversely impact employees with health conditions or family responsibilities.

It’s worth pointing out that ANY employee can acquire a serious health condition or become disabled. These processes are available to the employee who, while teleworking, trips while heading downstairs and reading email on their laptop. Being able and well is not guaranteed to anyone.
posted by childofTethys at 12:31 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


You asked about ethics, not law, but I wanted to Nth that this is an area with many legal implications (disability accommodation, privacy, health and safety, etc.) and your university's attorneys should be very involved in this process. If they're not, I would expect any policy that's prepared will need to be entirely revamped once the attorneys do get their hands on it.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 12:37 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


OP, you seem to be worried that people will take advantage and continue to work from home. I bet you have a lot of coworkers who are desperate to get out of the house, even if it’s just for a couple days a week. Yes, there’s a danger associated with going to work and with interacting with the public (if the public even wants to interact with you!) but people do dangerous jobs all the time. That’s why we have firefighters and a fishing industry and mining.
If not enough people are willing to do the necessary in-office work, that’s a sign that the administration needs to make the in-person work safer or better-paid or otherwise more attractive.


We had one person volunteer on her own to go into the office once a week. Since then we've gotten special dispensation (and I gather this time, they did ask for volunteers) to have four others go into the office four days a week, but I don't think they will have more than three of them in there at a time and they all have to be in different rooms entirely from each other. I believe our notary and our remaining office official permitted to sign notarized documents also have to physically come into the office and be in the same room because the law has NOT given my state permission to do that virtually.

I am NOT going to volunteer, even though it causes problems for them to not have me physically there and having to farm off my in-person stuff to other people. I'm not what we'd consider more vulnerable, but no way in hell am I going in until forced to. Everyone's vulnerable, really, it's just that some have MORE reasons not to risk, I think. And if anyone has any heart at all, in an office setting, I don't think they'd force anyone to come in or nitpick the situation. Plus if you're at a university, there's probably organizations or unions that deal with stuff like that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:50 PM on May 13


aside from the basic risk of being a human adult, there are also plenty of serious risk factors other than age that you simply could not know you had unless you had the time and wherewithal to have been having regular and comprehensive doctor visits. and even if you have health insurance, it is very easy to not be able to afford this or just to have not done it.

so you could in good faith excuse anyone from showing up who believed themselves or family members to be in a high-risk category, and you'd never know if you'd excused all of the right people. neither would they.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:37 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I think your question does a good job of identifying the issues, and I don't at all read it as you being against more-at-risk people (or anyone) working from home or or any other accommodations.

As you say, nobody is immune, so everyone is at risk to some degree. I realize that the cases of young and healthy people dying or suffering permanent damage get so much attention because they *are* outliers but they do indicate that there are risk factors that aren't yet understood. Even with some risk factors being known, it's not like there is a binary state of being vulnerable or not. And people may be unaware that they are at increased risk. For example, high blood pressure and vitamin D deficiency both appear to increase the likelihood of severe symptoms, but many people are walking around with these conditions undiagnosed and feeling perfectly healthy.

So I think a policy that allows some employees to work remotely and requires others to work on-site based on their supposed lower-risk status doesn't really make moral sense in this situation.
posted by dogwalker3 at 4:57 PM on May 13


I think this quote from a recent Politico article helps emphasize the ethical point about the language used: "Public-health officials have repeatedly sought to downplay a false sense of security surrounding the virus because of its disproportionate effect on older people or those with preexisting health conditions, something Fauci reiterated on Tuesday." The risk of a 'false sense of security' seems supported by information like the CDC data reported by the NYT (Mar. 18, 2020, updated Mar. 26, 2020) which showed "nearly 40 percent of patients sick enough to be hospitalized were age 20 to 54," as well as the points made above about how people can be unaware or unable to know about underlying conditions they may have.

There is a lot of great discussion here about the risk to individuals, and I also wanted to mention the risks of increasing the potential chains of transmission and the impact on the larger community, because I think that should be included in the ethical calculus, particularly if there is inadequate access to testing, insufficient contract tracing, limited PPE, and any question about how to enforce physical distancing policies.
posted by katra at 8:47 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


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