Can I refuse to go to work? Your employment rights explained

There are many reasons someone may not be able to return to work during the coronavirus pandemic. With schools closed, many people have children to look after presently, while other people may be concerned about their health should they have to start travelling to work again. spoke to employment experts about what rights you have to refuse to go to work.

Can I refuse to go to work?

Many people concerned about returning to the workplace may be worried about the implications of refusing to return to work.

Some workers are now being encouraged to return to work, but many will have reasonable reasons why they should not be returning to work in the current circumstances.

Kate Palmer, Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula, said in “normal circumstances”, refusing to come into work could be seen as “misconduct”.


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However, she added at the current time “these are not normal circumstances”.

She said: “While employers could still seek to discipline staff in this position, this should be a last-case resort.

“Instead, employers should listen to their concerns and work to see if they can reach a compromise with them.

“It should also be made clear what steps have been taken to keep the staff safe while at work, in line with government guidelines.”

How can my employer help me return to work?

If you are worried about returning to work, it is worth discussing your concerns with your employer.

Jennifer Smith, Employment Law Partner at JMW Solicitors, told employers should deal with employee’s concerns on a “case by case basis” as the UK begins to return to work.

Ms Smith said: “It’s likely that employers will have to deal with some disquiet among staff who perhaps don’t feel safe to return to work.


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“It’s important to communicate the practical steps being taken in line with Government advice to protect employees’ health and safety and reassure them that the matter is being given priority and will remain under review.

“Employers could also consider allowing increased home or other remote working arrangements to appease those fearful of attending their usual place of work – if an employer does permit an arrangement like that, careful consideration should be given to the practical implications of this on the business, and it should be made clear that any accommodations may not be sustainable and will be kept under review.

“Employers should consider each individual’s particular circumstances and work on a case by case basis.

“If someone is refusing to come into work because they are pregnant or otherwise at high risk (for example, those with weakened immune systems or pre-existing longer term conditions), employers may need to offer more flexibility and will certainly need to be mindful of obligations under the Equality Act 2010.”

Simon Mayberry, Senior Associate at LexLeyton, said “employees could rely on the potential threat to their health and safety to refuse to return to a workplace.”

He added: “The law protects those who refuse to attend work where they reasonably believe that there is a “serious and imminent” threat which they could not reasonably have been expected to avert.

“This protection is from dismissal, but employers would take a significant risk in taking any disciplinary action against an employee who held such a reasonable belief and refused to come to work.

“Employers have been encouraged by the Government to consult with their employees about a coronavirus risk assessment – close involvement in the management of risk should help to allay the fears of most workers.”

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