Answering Your Questions About Working From Home

Stan Bunger
June 01, 2020 - 2:32 pm

    As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

    Today we're looking at all the issues people are facing as they have suddenly transitioned to working entirely from home for the last two months and several major companies say this could go on indefinitely. We're joined by Dr. Ed Yelin, emeritus professor at UC San Francisco and senior researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at UC Berkeley. 

    Let me start by asking you, you've made a career out of this sort of thing. Here is a super large, real world petri dish of experimentation underway as far as people reshaping their workforce. What's it look like to you?

    Well, I think it's really important to focus that we're not a homogeneous group of people in this country nor in the labor force. So there are several groups and we have to distinguish them. There are people who have lost their jobs - 40 million of them, five million in California - and our hearts ache for their plight. And there are those who have to expose themselves for the kinds of work they do as essential workers. And we, too, must think of them before we think of those who are working at home because their problems may be greater. 

    Among those working at home, there are those who have call center jobs and the like, and their situation is very different than many typically white collar people who have freedom to do their jobs at home as they would in their office. And so it's important to distinguish among those classes of workers.

    Good point. And as we delve into this, of course, most of the questions we've gotten do come from people with what you described as kind of a classic white collar work from home situation. Let me ask you, though, regarding the sorts of folks who are having to go to work these days, what's your take on how well that's being handled? These are people who may really not want to go, but they have to.

    Right, and I think there are those who again have been given the choice, largely white collar workers, and many of them are choosing to stay home. Just as in Georgia when it opened, people could go to restaurants but by and large they aren't. But there are those who don't have those choices and we're all worried about how that will take place. We're worried about everything from how do you use the restroom facilities? How do you use the break facilities? How do you decide who, in a narrow hall, can go which way to get to where they're going? And many of us who have elevators in their workplaces worry about what that's going to be like. How do you police how many people enter it when everybody is late for their job? So I think there are a lot of concerns that we all have about returning to the office.

    Let's get to some of these questions, which have been sent in to us via email at My company hasn't given me any kind of stipend for home office supplies so I'm on my own. Am I better off buying a laptop or a desktop? Are there any ways to get reimbursed for what I buy (government programs)? And can I deduct all of this on next year's taxes?

    Well, let's start with the last one. I'm not an accountant and I'm not a lawyer, so I don't want to answer about any particular person's tax situation. As far as between a laptop and desktop, desktops typically come with larger screens and as eyestrain is an issue that would certainly be better. Personally, for many of us having a laptop means that you can find the position that's comfortable for yourself much more easily because you can move it around. But the eyestrain issue would definitely mean a larger screen and by and large that means a desktop.

    Of course, this is challenging for people. You mentioned eyestrain, maybe the answer would be a different set of glasses with which to work - the kind of computer distance classes - but you can't get to the eye doctor these days.

    Right, and eyestrain happens to people regardless of how good their eyesight is. It's just a question of how long you're at your computer. So again we go back to the issue I raised earlier about having the ability and the kind of job where you can get up for a while and move around and change your position. All of that is really helpful. But many people who are now forced to work at home don't have that freedom. They're tethered to their desks because they're being monitored in the same way that they were, say, if they worked at a call center or something like that.

    Any hints or ideas on how to remind yourself to take a break? 

    Well, there are software solutions to this problem. I happen to have an apple watch that tells me to get up and breathe and take a break. There are computer programs that do the same and that's a good thing. But again, in order to take advantage of those programs you have the kind of job that allows you to have that kind of freedom. And many people don't have that. They're tethered.

    Next question asks, are there any resources for families that have both parents working and the kids at home and now no schoolwork even, because it's summer break?

    Well, you know things are beginning to open up. I know the counties in the Bay Area differ among themselves. I have grandchildren and here in San Francisco the four-year-old's childcare center is going to open in a couple of weeks with very restricted rules and then summer programs for San Francisco Unified School District kids. The park and recreation department are opening in late June/early July, depending on the program.

    I'm sure every county differs. And rightfully San Francisco is going to give priority to low income people who can't afford options when they need to get to work, for essential workers in particular. And that's as it should be. So it's still going to be tough this summer because we all have to make decisions about the risks that we're willing to expose ourselves to and the risks that our kids will experience as they go back into programs.

    Next question says when employees work from home, they may incur additional expenses for things like internet and cell phone usage, electricity to operate them. I'm sure there are a lot more than we haven't enumerated there but the question says, should employers reimburse employees for such expenses? And if you are an employee, how do you ask? 

    Well it's a lot easier in large companies that have HR departments and have begun to deal with this. Certainly my employer, University of California, San Francisco, has dealt with it and has sent us notices about things. I would start, if your office is large enough, if your company is large enough, to contact the HR, contact the IT divisions to help you with the set-ups. Whether or not you'll be able to get reimbursed is a difficult question. Again, I'm not a lawyer so the issue about whether employers are required to do this really depends on the issues. Of course, there are protections that workers have through the reasonable accommodations that are necessary for people with disabilities and other health problems. So it's important. In large work organizations there are many offices that will help you deal with these problems. What's difficult is, very small organizations are unlikely to have a whole panoply of those kinds of resources to help you with.

    As you've been pointing out, there's such a schism here if you work for a big company that sends you home with a full kit and keeps you posted on a daily basis about their employee benefit plans, or if you were just sent home one day by a small employer and told, "we'll call you back when we can". Different worlds.

    Yes, and you know there are things that one can do pretty inexpensively to increase the security of your WiFi, of your system. You can get VPN systems that require dual factor authentication, and that's really good to prevent people from hacking in and protect the data that you're amassing as a part of your daily work.

    Yeah one of these questions actually said, "my husband says I should be more worried about data security". This person works for a financial services company using the home WiFi network and asks, is this a reasonable concern? If something does go wrong - and this sort of boggles the mind if you think of the possibility of some kind of data breach - am I liable?

    Well, I think if you take minimal precautions like only operating inside a VPN system that has protection, using the dual factor authentication system that requires you to enter a second password that is sent to you at random, it's very difficult to hack into the systems but we all know that some people succeed in doing so, despite our best efforts to prevent that. The question of liability, of course, is a legal issue that I'm not equipped to answer. But I think it's really important to take it up with your company. And certainly a financial services company has probably thought a lot about this issue in the last several months. They've now had almost three months to deal with it, so they should have.

    Yeah, that's true. This didn't just start yesterday. May feel like it, but that's not the case. This next one says, I have special equipment I use while at work, specifically an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. I have been working at home for the last two plus months and I'm not allowed to go back into my building to get my stuff. How should I handle this?

    How should I get that more ergonomically sound workstation? Oh boy, this is such a hard one. This kind of accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act for those who meet the formal definitions of disability is much easier because those accommodations have to be provided to workers. Again in large workplaces, there are offices that deal with ergonomic issues and in the case of these large organizations, I'm sure they'll be glad to deal with it remotely. 

    For small organizations that don't have those clench of resources, it's trial and error. And I think we are going to see a mini pandemic of ergonomic problems arise from people who are working. Particularly those who have the kinds of jobs that don't allow them to get up and take breaks and the like.

    You mentioned the ADA, and of course that covers specific named categories, right? Not, for example, if you have a sore wrist from using the mouse, would that be covered by the ADA?

    Well, it would be covered if it had an effect on the essential functions of your job. And if typing away or entering data was an essential function of the job then it could very well be protected. But you know, the ADA also required reasonable accommodations at the job, even short as preventive measures before a full blown disability results. So I certainly would check with the office of your employer that deals with ADA issues and accommodations. And I'm sure they would much prefer to deal with it on this side of a disability claim than on the other one.

    This is kind of related, my neck and shoulders are killing me. I know it's because of my work at home set up. Is this a worker's comp claim?

    It could very well be and it may end up being. I would start by requesting accommodations from one's employer just because they and you would be much better off dealing with it before the problem becomes chronic. And we do know that accommodations that people make to their workstations often can turn the tide against some kind of repetitive stress injuries. So it's really important that workplaces provide this claims of service to people, and large employers by and large do that. However, we know that small employers often don't have the resources to do that. Sometimes they'll outsource it to other people who can help with it. But we know that in the case of really small employers, that just doesn't happen. People have to be cognizant, and if they have the freedom to get up from their desk and take breaks, it's really essential.

    Next question says, I work in retail. My county has not yet opened stores up, but I know it's coming soon. Frankly, I'm scared to go back to work. What are my rights?

    Again I'm not a lawyer, but we know that employers, especially of at-will workers, can demand that they come to work, although they need to provide the protections to make sure that the workers are not exposed to a greater extent than public health would indicate. But at-will workers, and particularly those who aren't well represented by unions or other workers organizations will be at risk. And that's something that we worry about night and day and should worry about.

    Let me put my question simply. What if I don't want to work at home? Do I have any rights, any abilities there? This is somebody who would rather be at work.

    Well, now that we're gradually entering new phases you will be able to go to your workplace if you want to. My employer has indicated that nobody who chooses to work at home will be forced to go to work in the next couple of months at least. But on the flip side, I think it is increasingly going to be the case that people will have the privilege if they wanted to go into workplaces. I would counsel the individual though, before they do, to make sure that at the minimum their employer has thought through how to provide a safe working environment. We know in the Bay Area with tech industries using the open office architecture, often there's very little protection for workers in that environment. It's an environment in which people congregate closely and it'd be very difficult to keep a safe social distance. 

    So I think before anybody eagerly goes back - and many of us are aching to see our co-workers because that's an important part of our jobs - we nevertheless have to think about all of the health aspects of going back to work full time.

    Before I let you go, are you aware of or have you seen any good model that employers might use, that employees might check to get a feel for what a safe workplace would look like? What sorts of things would be part of the recipe?

    Well, my colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces in Berkeley are cataloging when employers are doing the guidelines that are being developed. And so there is a lot of work being done in this area. It's all at this point seat of the pants, and it hasn't been tested. I'm in a medical school environment, usually when somebody says, "we ought to do this or that," we test it with an intervention or a trial. And we're doing all of this by the seat of our pants. But there are some logical precepts about social distancing, maintaining cleanliness, providing clean, safe kitchens and restrooms. All of that is really important and should be taken into account.