Q: I just returned to my office last week. I am only working at our office a few days per week. Our manager is requiring that we wear some type of face covering. Some employees are wearing homemade masks some are wearing what look like surgical masks. I have a hard time wearing a mask every day. It is hot and uncomfortable. Can I refuse?
A: Earlier in this pandemic, the guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggested that most of us should not wear masks. There was a concern that many of us would purchase hospital-grade masks and then there would be few available for health care providers or other essential workers.
The guidance changed in early April, 2020. Most public health officials are suggesting that masks or other face coverings, can prevent the transmission of the virus. There is also data that there may be many asymptomatic carriers who could be transmitting the virus unknowingly. I think most of us now understand that a mask can help reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
It sounds like your manager is sharing the most current guidance with the goal of maintaining a safe and healthy workplace. You may request an exception if you think the mask interferes with your ability to perform your job safely or if you have a medical condition which prevents you from wearing a mask safely. Some asthmatics struggle with wearing a mask safely.
Your manager may also have other requirements when you are in the office. Your manager may also require that you maintain at least six feet of distance between you and others in the office. You may notice more hand sanitizer and a limit on visitors, when you are in the office. There may be fewer employees in the office at one time. Your lunch room or cafeteria may also be closed. You may see employees placed in temporary offices or work spaces to improve social distancing. You may see elevator occupancy numbers drop to fewer riders. Companies are trying their best to resume normal business operations while also ensuring that they maintain a safe workplace.
You can refuse to wear a mask in the office, but I would not recommend it. Your manager may choose to discipline you or could even terminate your employment. Many employers are offering a lot of flexibility in office locations (e.g., working from home or a vacant conference room) for those struggling with wearing a mask. However, the mask is considered an important tool to reducing the transmission of this virus.
Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.