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LABOUR LAWS

‘Blindly continuing’: Are too many workers in Germany going into the office amid pandemic?

Experts estimated that more than half of Germany's workforce is able to work from home - but recent figures show that, in March this year, less than a third of employees did so, despite the country's rising Covid-19 infection rates.

'Blindly continuing': Are too many workers in Germany going into the office amid pandemic?
A woman working at home office.picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Strauch

Since Easter, new lockdown measures have been in place across most of Germany, dictating when, where, and for how long households are allowed to socialise with non-household members.

But in spite of efforts to reduce contact with others in our private lives, recent figures suggest that many people’s working lives are continuing as normal.

Germany has tried to incentivise working from home amid the coronavirus crisis through offering tax incentives, and making it mandatory for employers to allow employees to work remotely whenever possible. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany plans to give people working from home more rights and benefits

But while experts believe that around more than half of the country’s workforce would be able to work from home during the pandemic, new figures have emerged showing that less than a third of employees are currently doing so.

In March, research by the Munich-based Ifo Institute found that only 31.7 percent of the German workforce was currently working from home on a part-time or full-time basis. This is up slightly from February, when the Ifo found that 30.3 percent of the labour force who were doing either full or partial home office.

Commenting on the figures, Oliver Falck, Head of the Ifo Centre for Industrial Economics and New Technologies, said there was “a lot of room for improvement.” 

“We estimate that around 56 percent of employees could work from home,” he added. 

To make matters worse, mobility data gathered from Google showed that movement to and from work actually increased from February to March, suggesting that, while some people have started to work from home, others are now spending less time in home office and more time on-site.

This is in spite of an upsurge in coronavirus infections in March, which saw more than 10,000 new infections being recorded per day and the 7-day incidence rate more than doubling in the four weeks from March 2nd to March 30th.

A factory working in Schwedt, Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

“In the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, home office could be used much more as a means of social distancing while at the same time maintaining the economy,” said Falck. “At the same time, the comparatively low number [of home office workers] shows just how important consistent tests in the workplace are.”

‘Strongly encouraged’ is not a rule

Joe, a software developer who lives in Berlin, has been working in a crowded office four days a week since he started a new job earlier this year, with no obligation to wear masks. So far, he hasn’t been offered a coronavirus test by his employer – in spite of the risks posed by his working environment.

“I think it’s crazy that employers are blindly continuing what they’ve always done,” he said. “And it’s the government’s fault for not actually making the rules clear – ‘strongly encouraged’ is not a rule. They need to be firmer with business owners, especially when people are being fired or put on Kurzarbeit left and right, and workers’ power is being degraded.”

However, some people have felt more comfortable to set boundaries with their employers – even when asked to come into their place of work.

READ ALSO: German president urges firms to allow workers to work from home ‘wherever possible’

Alex, 32, who teaches at a university in Berlin, says he has been running his classes online since the first lockdown in March 2020. University administrators have asked him and his colleagues to offer a few in-person classes per semester, but wary of the risks involved, he told them he would prefer to continue teaching from home.

“We have the means to work at home, and when I run a class online, I don’t think there’s a massive detriment to students’ learning and experience,” he explained. “So why run the risk of infection?”

Warnings, but no fines

In February, an investigation by Buzzfeed and Report Mainz found that regulators were struggling to ensure that that companies had put in place adequate coronavirus measures such as masks, hand sanitiser and social distancing.

Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Patrick Pleul

Of the 50 employment safety authorities surveyed, 90 percent said they had issued written or verbal warnings to firms that had fallen afoul of the rules.

In spite of the warnings, however, these companies had rarely been fined, and only a handful had been asked to close their offices entirely.

According to the employment authorities, this is largely due to staffing issues, with around three-quarters of authorities saying they didn’t have enough staff to enforce the rules.

There are signs that the federal government could soon take a tougher line on businesses if the situation continues, however.

Speaking on the Anne Wille talk show at the end of March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that, if companies didn’t comply with the government’s suggestions, they would impose new laws mandating wider home office working and free-of-charge tests for employees at least twice a week.  

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COVID-19 RULES

EXPLAINED: The Covid rules in place across German states

Many Covid restrictions have been dropped in Germany, but some rules remain in place. And as infections increase again, it's important to be aware of what you should do if you get Covid.

EXPLAINED: The Covid rules in place across German states

Germany has relaxed or changed many Covid restrictions in recent months. However, with Covid infections rocketing again, people are reminding themselves of what rules remain in place, and what they have to do if they get a positive test.

Here’s a quick roundup of what you should know. 

Face masks

Covid masks have to be worn when travelling on public transport, including planes departing to and from Germany. 

They also have to be worn in places where there are more vulnerable people, such as care homes, hospitals and doctor offices. 

Masks are not mandatory anymore in shops (including supermarkets) and restaurants, but individual businesses can enforce the rule so watch out for signs on the door. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

FFP2 masks have become the standard in Germany, but in some cases other medical masks are sufficient.

There are no longer any entry rules to public venues such as the 3G or 2G rule, meaning that people had to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test. 

However, they could return in autumn if the infection protection laws are adapted, and if the Covid situation gets worse.

Mandatory isolation 

The rules on isolation differ from state to state, but there is one general requirement: those who test positive for Covid have to go into isolation at home and avoid all contact with people outside the household. The isolation period lasts at least five days or a maximum of 10 days.

If you get a positive result at home, you should go to a test centre and undergo a rapid antigen test. If it is positive, the quarantine obligation kicks in. If it is negative, you have to get a PCR test.

If you have Covid symptoms, you should contact your doctor, local health authorities or the non-emergency medical on-call service on 116 117. They can advise or whether you should get a PCR test. 

Across German states, the isolation period lasts 10 days, but – as we mentioned above – there are differences on how it can end earlier. 

In Berlin, for instance, it can be shortened from the fifth day with a negative test if you have been symptom free for 48 hours. If this isn’t the case, the isolation is extended until you have been symptom-free for 48 hours and tested negative. But you can leave without a negative test after 10 days. 

A positive Covid test.

A positive Covid test. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Anyone who tests positive for Covid using a rapid test at a testing centre can have a free PCR test to confirm whether they have Covid-19. If the PCR test is negative, there is no obligation to go into quarantine.

In Bavaria, the isolation period is five days after the first positive test. For isolation to end on day five you must be symptom free for at least 48 hours. Otherwise, isolation is extended for 48 hours at a time until the maximum of 10 days. 

A test-to-release is not needed to end the isolation, unless the person works in a medical setting. 

READ ALSO: Germany sets out new Covid isolation rules

After isolation, Bavaria recommends that you wear an FFP2 mask in public places indoors and reduce contact for an extra five days. 

The state of Hesse has a similar system to Bavaria where a test is not needed to end the isolation early (unless the person works in a medical setting).

In North Rhine-Westphalia and Hamburg, residents can end their Covid isolation on the fifth day if they get a negative test (carried out at a testing centre). Otherwise the isolation period continues until the 10th day, or until they get a negative test.

Close contacts of people infected with Covid (including household contacts) no longer have to quarantine in Germany, but they are advised to get tested regularly and monitor for symptoms, as well as reduce contacts for five days. 

As ever, check with your local authority for the detailed rules.

Travel

Germany recently provisionally dropped almost all of its Covid travel restrictions, making it much easier to enter the country. 

The changes mean that entry into Germany is now allowed for all travel purposes, including tourism. The move makes travel easier – and cheaper – for people coming from non-EU countries, particularly families who may have needed multiple Covid tests for children. 

People also no longer have to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test against Covid before coming to Germany – the so-called 3G rule. 

However, if a country is classed as a ‘virus variant’ region, tougher rules are brought in. 

It is likely that travel rules could be reinstated again after summer or if the Covid situation gets worse so keep an eye on any developments. 

READ ALSO: Germany drops Covid entry restrictions for non-EU travellers

Vaccine mandate

The mandate making Covid vaccinations compulsory for medical staff remains in place. A vaccine mandate that would have affected more of the population in Germany was rejected by the Bundestag in a vote in April

READ ALSO: Germany’s top court approves Covid vaccine mandate for health care workers

Workplaces

Masks are no longer mandatory in workplaces, unless it is in a setting where more risks groups are, such as hospitals or care homes. 

The government no longer requires people to work from home, but employers and employees can reach their own ‘home office’ arrangement.

Tests are also no longer mandatory, but workplaces can offer their employees regular tests. 

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