CNN Business  — 

Last month, some employees at L’Oreal’s New York office learned they would go back into the office after months of working from home.

The cosmetics giant, whose brands include Garnier, Lancôme, and Urban Decay, planned to increase its current maximum of 25% of employees at the office to 50%, according to a July email from Stephane Charbonnier, the cosmetics company’s chief human resources officer. Unless employees have approved paid-time off or a reason approved by the company, “you will be expected to be onsite if you are assigned by your manager to be onsite,” according to the email, which was obtained by CNN.

L’Oreal’s offices across the country are instituting similar plans, all of which entail safety protocols such as temperature checks and mandatory facial coverings, the company says.

The requirement to go back into the office hasn’t settled well with many of L’Oreal’s US employees. CNN spoke with 18 current workers at the French-owned beauty brand, who expressed concerns about health risks of showing up to an office during the pandemic when they felt their jobs could be done from home. The employees questioned the benefits of being in the building: Meetings are still virtual, they said. While the company has said it wants people in the office so that they can collaborate, in one case, an employee said she showed up to work to have no interaction with her team members, who weren’t scheduled to be in the office in the same week.

Employees CNN spoke with, who work in office jobs at L’Oreal across the country, asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing their jobs. The company says it employs more than 12,000 people in 13 states. The company’s website says it has five manufacturing facilities and 15 distribution facilities scattered across the country, but the employees who spoke to CNN are strictly part of the corporate side of the company.

The employees said they felt L’Oreal had been unsympathetic when they raised concerns about individual situations with managers and worried the company would retaliate if they didn’t show up. Five employees said they were told by either their manager or human resources that they’d be placed on a “non-compliant” list if they chose not to return.

An employee who works at a sales field office for L’Oreal in the Midwest said most of her high profile clients aren’t returning to their offices until after the New Year. “You feel like a peon, an ant being marched back to the office in order for HR to check a box to send it up the ladder to prove we’re doing as we’re instructed to do.”

The company said in a statement to CNN, “L’Oréal’s plan to cautiously return employees to worksites is guided by one fundamental principle: to protect the health and safety of our employees. Being together is a key ingredient to our culture and essential to the success of our business in a creative industry. As such, we have gradually returned employees to offices in locations around the world under a comprehensive safety plan only when permitted by local governments.”

Employees designated as essential workers in industries ranging from healthcare to retail have been reporting to work throughout the pandemic. Now, employers are considering if and how to bring a new wave of employees back into buildings: office workers who have been doing their jobs from home for months.

It’s a debate that isn’t just about individual offices but about public health. So far, more than 4.7 million Americans have been infected with coronavirus and at least 156,830 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

“Where there is widespread community transmission, it makes no sense for non-essential workers to return to the workplace, especially if it’s work that can be done remotely from home in order for everyone to be safe,” said Celine Gounder, CNN medical analyst and former assistant commissioner for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

In bringing employees back to work, companies face a number of obstacles ranging from how to track who is going in and out of the building to what employees will eat for lunch. Some companies, particularly in the tech industry, have delayed bringing people back. Google, for instance, has said it will let employees work from home until next summer.

As corporate America weighs the impact of Covid-19 on return-to-work policies, L’Oreal, one of the world’s biggest cosmetic brands, has also been talking up what it plans to do to support Americans in the recovery from the pandemic. In a press release from the company in March it outlined the substantial financial and product donations they were making to various coronavirus relief efforts, including Feeding America and Feed the Children.

But L’Oreal’s return-to-work plans appear to be different than those of their immediate competitors.

Estée Lauder Companies, which owns cosmetics brands like Clinique and Bobbi Brown, says it will reopen its corporate and brand offices in the United States in October but that the date is subject to be pushed back to later in the year.

“We have made this decision in close partnership with our Medical Advisory Board for a variety of factors, including a desire to continue learning from [others] reopening and the safety of our employees as the utmost priority,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to CNN, adding that “as we approach the reopening date, we will continue to monitor how the situation evolves to inform whether we need to delay reopenings in any locations.”

A spokesperson for Coty, which recently acquired a majority stake in Kylie Cosmetics and owns brands like Clairol and Rimmel told CNN that employees are able to return to the office on a voluntary basis.

“Phase 1 of bringing non-essential workers has begun across our offices in the United States but on a voluntary basis. There is no date on when Phase 2 will begin, but it will also remain voluntary for our employees.”

Procter & Gamble, home to brands like Pantene, Crest and Olay, among others, told CNN in a statement it is currently beginning to bring back non-essential employees, but it plans to reevaluate after Labor Day.

“Employee health and safety is our top priority. We have gone above and beyond state and federal guidelines to ensure a safe workplace. It’s also why we are implementing a staged approach as we return, as well as having exception processes for those who can’t. For now, we are maintaining about a 20% capacity in our offices. We are managing our in-office presence proactively; organizing by work groups and location to ensure proper social distancing and safety. We will continue to utilize a one week in-office and one week work-from-home model, in order to reduce potential exposure. P&G will revisit this approach after Labor Day. For now, we are maintaining limited capacity in our offices, which is voluntary.”

But some companies are taking steps to cautiously reopen now, and in some cases, there’s not a lot employees can do about it if they want to keep their jobs. Helen Rella, a New York employment attorney at Wilk Auslander LLP, said that companies can legally “set the terms and conditions of employment.”

She has noticed an increase in terminations based on employees’ not returning to work.

“Employees who refuse to return to work may be deemed to have resigned from their positions and/or have their employment terminated,” she said. “Fear of contracting Covid-19 is not an excuse to fail to return to work.”

Rella said that while some large companies are bringing a portion of their office workforce back, many are now taking a “wait and see attitude” in deciding whether to bring employees back or delay a return.

We are not Google or Facebook

Not all employers view themselves as having a workplace culture that permits working from home in the long run. In emails obtained by CNN, in which a L’Oreal employee detailed the challenges members on their team faced with returning to the workplace, whether it be their commute or childcare, an HR representative responded saying not to compare themselves to that of Facebook and Google who have told employees they do not have to return to the office until July 2021 at the earliest.

The company says it is taking steps to try to ensure a smooth and safe transition back to the office for its workforce. In addition to requiring masks, temperature checks and workplace cleanings at least three times a day, L’Oreal said it has “made physical modifications to our worksites to reduce population density and allow for the required physical distance between employees working on-site.”

The company said it has proactively extended the option to work from home to employees with medical conditions that may make them more vulnerable to a Covid-19-related infection or complication, according to guidance from the CDC.

“To ensure that we are being sensitive to the experiences of our employees, we have also made accommodations and provided additional flexibility for those with personal circumstances such as childcare or eldercare obligations and employees living with a higher-risk household member,” the company said.

It has also asked managers not to organize meetings before 10 am and after 4 pm “to provide additional time for commuting and flexibility.”

In offices in the United States, L’Oreal says it is bringing back employees in two phases. The company’s plan includes dividing people into two groups that alternate their presence at the office weekly.

In New York, L’Oreal first started bringing back office workers on June 29, according to emails the company sent to employees. The second phase of the plan entailed bringing back up to half of its workers to the office starting early August, according to Charbonnier’s email in July. (Employees in other states say they were given a similar timeline and target). L’Oreal said they are adjusting their plans based on the conditions in each state and as circumstances evolve.

The company has given employees its reasons on why they should return. Charbonnier’s email last month said that being in the office “will provide more opportunities for reuniting and collaborating.”

Separately, a “return to office” list of facts and questions that was also sent to employees by Human Resource and obtained by CNN states that “Now that authorities have been lifting the stay-at-home orders, it is important that we stand in solidarity with our colleagues. We are strongest when united in purpose and practice.”

Employees who spoke to CNN had a different perspective on whether the company’s plans are achieving their desired outcome.

“Pointless to put us in jeopardy”

One manager for L’Oreal USA says she was part of the first phase of employees to return to the New York offices. This employee says when she arrived on her floor she was “surprised” to not see other members of her team, who were in a group scheduled to report to the office at a different time. Instead of reuniting with her colleagues, she found herself sitting at her desk in the open floor plan alone, wearing a mask for 8 hours.

Later that evening she contacted her manager, and then eventually human resources, to voice concerns that she was putting her health at risk in part because her commute entailed getting on a crowded subway. But she said that an HR representative told her that if she did not return to the office she would need to use her remaining PTO and would subsequently be placed on a “non-compliant list.” In an effort to keep her job amid the pandemic she acquiesced and continued to return to the office.

“The rotations don’t make sense and we’re not getting face time with our team members,” she said. “I didn’t end up seeing anyone I normally work with so it seems pointless to put us in jeopardy.”

L’Oreal didn’t comment on the “non-complaint” list or what the implications would be to be on it.

One assistant vice president who was scheduled to return to the office on Monday questioned the benefit of being in the office when meetings still take place online.

“I want to do the work, but there is no logical reason in making us come into the office when we still will continue to have virtual meetings - especially when we’ve been working harder while remote to make sure that business continues as usual,” the person said.

Many said that getting to the office was a daunting task itself. The company provides a daily allowance for commuting for New York employees. An assistant vice president who spoke to CNN called the amount, $35, “flawed.”

“For those with commutes, it was very noticeable for those who live in outerboroughs that the shuttle locations were being prioritized to upper level management living upstate or in New Jersey. Employees living in outerboroughs would have no choice but to commute an hour plus on underground mass transit. A $35 stipend is not enough for even a one-way trip.”

Employees at L’Oreal say that they could request to work from home if they or a loved one had a medical reason approved by the company. But even making certain exceptions has proven complicated.

Employees who do want to request to work remotely have to fill out what is known internally as a “high-risk accommodation request form.” The form, obtained by CNN, requires a certification letter by the employee’s doctor, along with the release of private medical information that will then be approved or denied based on 18 high-risk categories outlined by the Centers for Disease Control.

What about my mental health?

Two employees said they were disappointed to see that mental health issues were not among those listed on the form.

An employee said that when he told his manager about his anxiety, he was met with the response that “if it’s not on the form unfortunately you’re going to have to use your vacation days.”

Another employee at the New York offices, who is a manager, stated that after submitting a doctor’s note to Human Resources regarding her medical condition, she was told it was “not sufficient” and that she needed to release her medical records before her request to continue working from home would be considered. But she pushed back, telling HR she “didn’t feel comfortable sharing her personal medical information, not knowing where that would be living and who would have access to it.”

“Once it was clear I was standing my ground, I was told I would be put on a non-compliant list. When I asked what that meant, my manager told me that the long-term professional ramifications were unclear but it wasn’t good.”

But L’Oreal denies asking employees to release their medical records, despite CNN obtaining the forms and L’Oreal saying in their statement that any employee seeking a medical exemption from returning to the office is required to provide verification from their physician.

“In most instances, a doctor’s note is a sufficient verification. In line with normal business practices for employees who request a medical accommodation in the workplace, any confidential information shared by employees is managed by a third-party provider in conjunction with HIPAA-trained HR professionals who determine eligibility for medical exemptions from returning to in-office work,” the company said.

Difficulties with childcare

Multiple employees at L’Oreal expressed their concerns for not having been given a clear path forward for those with childcare issues. Although New York schools plan to be open this fall, many parents are concerned that they may follow suit like other schools across the country that are turning to virtual learning.

Employees told CNN that they were able to obtain permission to work from home if they had childcare issues during the first phase of the company’s reopening plans, but managers aren’t granting such accommodations anymore. The company does have a “Special Circumstance Accommodation Request Form - Child or Elder Care,” which CNN has obtained, but it specifically relates to those who have a child or loved one who have a medical condition.

One employee, spoke to CNN about the difficulty of balancing a full-time job, along with having children. She says on a call last month with employees, she asked about those who have childcare issues and a company official allegedly responded, “L’Oreal pays employees to work, not to educate their children.” She said she was “shocked” and although she didn’t push back she felt it was “disgusting.”

“In a world where parents have had to struggle through school and working and working mothers face falling behind in their careers, this is disgusting,” she said.

The company said that statement “does not accurately reflect the sentiment of L’Oréal” and referred CNN to the steps they are taking to accommodate “employees with personal circumstances like childcare needs.”

The company is advising managers on how to deal with such situations. An email sent to executive level leadership and obtained by CNN via two top level executives states that “as executives of the company we expect VPs and above to lead and set the example. If someone refuses to come back, we should engage in some serious one on one dialogue.”

In its statement to CNN L’Oreal said that “we have empowered our people managers to be sensitive and accommodating to the unique circumstances of the individuals on their teams while also balancing the needs of the business. This is a time of great uncertainty and anxiety and we will continue to coach our people managers through this challenging moment so they can be responsive to employee concerns.”

“Risking my life for company culture”

There are signs that L’Oreal’s plans are hurting morale. An employee who has been at the company for several years said that he and several of his colleagues are considering resigning.

“I feel like I’m being asked to risk my life for company culture,” he said. “They just don’t seem to want to listen to it and the flogging will continue until morale improves. If people are doing their jobs what’s the difference of where we are.”

Adds another employee “L’Oreal puts out a mantra of ‘Because you’re worth it,’ but does not treat their employees with the same marketing strategy as their customers.”