Don’t Let America Go Back to Work Without Telecommuting Rights
Not everyone can work from home, but the ones who can should be allowed to
A growing wave of legislators is aiming to revive the comatose economy by sending their constituents back into what is effectively an active war zone — and justifying the argument with a predictable pile of parroted sound bites, leaving many Americans with a tough question to ponder as they wade through the murky waters of an astoundingly partisan pandemic.
This question is especially tough because the “pondering” isn’t up to the labor force at large. That is to say, if your employer gets the green light to pull everyone back into work, you’re going back in — or else. That impending lack of control over your own environment is a frightening proposition, in contrast to the level of control you’re likely exerting now to avoid exposing yourself and others to the coronavirus. Is there anything you can do to retain some semblance of control once the United States is deemed open for business again? For many of us, the answer is “yes, with an if.”
Conventional wisdom pre-Covid19 was that 29% of the nation’s workers could fully perform their jobs remotely. This estimate might be on the low side. To be fair, millions of people in the United States cannot perform their jobs remotely and every day we hear of more non-essential workers who can’t telecommute and are now being laid off or furloughed. Still, a large segment of the population can do their jobs just fine without commuting to an office, but their bosses might still require them to return, and maybe too soon.
The economic and environmental costs of commuting levy a tremendous burden on individuals and their region’s tax base.
Before we all began sheltering in place, I had been pursuing an initiative to protect telecommuting as a civil right under Title VII employment discrimination law. You can read all about it here, but its relevance to pandemic mitigation efforts is both timely and powerful. One of the major arguments for the right to telecommute is that your employer doesn’t know what’s best for your household (imminent virus or otherwise). So as long as you can do the same job from your house as you can from your cubicle, your decision not to commute to an office is literally none of their business.
The economic and environmental costs of commuting levy a tremendous burden on individuals and their region’s tax base. The effects of a car-centric culture mean that some people simply can’t take a job because of commuting demands and as we are just starting to learn, the physical workspace itself may be putting many employees at an unfair disadvantage.
All of this is heightened in the throes of the coronavirus, as vast numbers of Americans dread being thrust back into a minefield of exposure or increasing their risk of exposing others, including those who don’t have a viable work-from-home job.
There is no time like the present to recognize the right to telecommute for any job that can be done remotely. The idea of terminating an employee who fears for their safety is preposterous on its own, let alone when provided with a mountain of evidence proving that telecommuting is a holistic win-win for all interests and a vital tactic in flattening the pandemic curve.
You might be surprised how few employees it takes to force a tipping point in a company.
Of course, “the present” isn’t exactly the most convenient time to be pursuing revolutionary legislation. We need to act faster and that’s where you come in.
The most effective and responsible path to empowering America’s workforce with telecommuting rights now — as in, tomorrow — is to enact it within your own company as internal policy, with the hope of producing a snowball effect in the business community. Again, this will protect those who can do their jobs remotely as well as those who cannot. Participating in such a policy now will paint your organization in the best possible light at a time of historic importance. To this day, Henry Ford is credited with revolutionizing the American workday. He wasn’t anywhere near the first to do it. He was in the right place at the right time and made the right decision.
I urge you to consider a simple, precedent-based framework such as the PORT Act below, and to launch it as new company policy in the coming weeks ahead of any “reopening” of America.
It’s a lot simpler than you think, and you will probably never have more individual leverage than you do at this moment. You might be surprised how few employees it takes to force a tipping point in a company. There is no 500-page document to sift through here, no convoluted legalese — the PORT Act can serve as a foundation for any company’s internal policy.
The coronavirus pandemic has made this decision both simple and important. Rarely do such opportunities become apparent, but when they do, history favors the pioneers.