Attorneys Quotes Carrie Urrutia on Return to Office Mandates, Quiet Layoffs & Employment Law Considerations


Meeting conducted virtually and in personCarrie L. Urrutia, a member of Eastman & Smith’s Labor & Employment Practice Group, discussed several legal considerations about Return-to-Office (RTO) policies in the article “Return-to-Office Mandates: Layoffs in Sheep's Clothing.”

“Many companies simply want things to revert to the way they were before COVID,” she said, adding that “requiring employees to return to work in person may have some advantages, such as improved communication and more opportunities for mentorship, but organizations typically haven’t experienced extensive productivity issues with remote work.”

Ms. Urrutia continued by saying “quietly laying off workers under the RTO guise could anger employees and damage an organization’s reputation, which might impact future hiring and meeting business goals.” As to why RTO is attractive to companies, Ms. Urrutia noted, "It could be a less-costly way to achieve a goal of reducing the workforce without a formal reduction in force” adding that “employees who quit as a result of RTO mandates wouldn't be eligible for unemployment compensation and typically wouldn't receive a severance package as opposed to those who were laid off.” “Generally speaking,” she stated, “employees who voluntarily resign are not entitled to those benefits.”

Yet, Ms. Urrutia argued that “companies would be better served implementing hiring freezes or enabling more flexibility, and that organizations should examine their current remote or hybird work arrangements and assess what’s working for them and employees. If RTO is mandated, they should clearly articulate the business reasons why it’s necessary and why remote work isn’t working.” 

As a rule, Ms. Urrutia explained, “employees don’t have a legal right to work from home, so employers are free to require in-person work as a condition of employment. Workers therefore typically don’t have legal recourse if they feel a RTO mandate is designed to make them quit.” There are exceptions, either contractual stipulations, or those specific to unionized employees, she said.

“Employers are also required to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and that might include allowing remote work,” and Ms. Urrutia said, “Employees who work from home are not a protected classification, but many employees who work from home are in protected classifications.”

Ms. Urrutia regularly defends employers in state and federal courts as well as administrative agencies throughout Ohio. Her practice includes counseling on employment policies and handbooks, training, representing employers in administrative proceedings, defending against discrimination claims and providing guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), drug testing, privacy, harassment, workers' compensation and a host of other employment law issues.  For questions concerning remote workers, please contact Ms. Urrutia.