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Returning to work during COVID-19

June 4, 2020

ASU Law professor says pandemic continues to present a number of challenges for workers and employers; legislation will have to clear easement for both parties

More than 20 million Americans are now out of work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest unemployment number since the Great Depression.

Many of those who have remained employed and working from home have indicated they are either leery of or not in a rush for a return to the office. That goes double for some who are receiving more in unemployment than their regular wages. The White House and Congress are even talking about a "return to work" bonus to incentivize people to return to their desks.

People want to return to their normal lives and contribute to the economy, but they’re not quite ready to take that first step. So what’s it going to take?

Michael Selmi, a Foundation Professor of Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, has more insight into the issue than most. A leading voice in employment law, Selmi has worked on a number of Supreme Court cases and is a frequent commentator for media outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and NPR.

ASU Now spoke to Selmi about the reopening of America’s workplace and how it might not be as easy as it sounds.

Man in silver hair and glasses

Michael Selmi 

Question: Have you ever seen anything like today’s current employment situation in your lifetime?

Answer: I have certainly not. While we have had serious economic disruptions in the recent past, including mass layoffs, the current situation has the additional overlay of a health pandemic. I think that makes it a very different situation.

Q: For the person who’s been recently unemployed because of COVID-19, what do they have ahead of them?

A: That turns out to be a more difficult question than it might appear because circumstances will vary a lot. Congress has provided a $600 supplement payment that is set to expire at the end of July. I think that has helped people survive their job loss but without that supplemental pay, many people will suffer greater economic pain, given that many job losses are likely to be permanent. There is also the issue of individuals who have a fear of returning to work because of health concerns, and what that will mean for extending their unemployment benefits. This will likely depend on whether the individual has good cause to fear returning, and that in turn is likely to depend on the particular circumstances of the individual and the particular condition of the workplace. 

Q: Employers seemed to be concerned if they allow workers to come back, they’ve opened themselves to liability. How will they be protected from lawsuits?

A: There’s federal legislation under consideration to provide employers immunity from liability in some circumstances. I don't know if that that legislation will pass, but there could also be state legislation along those lines. But with respect to worker injuries in the workplace, in general, employees are precluded from suing employers for injuries or illnesses that occur in the workplace. Instead, they're relegated to filing a workers’ compensation claim, and workers’ compensation provides more limited benefits to employees than a tort claim or a lawsuit might. There’s also going to be, even in the context of workers’ compensation, the question of whether an employee acquired the illness in the workplace. If an employer were to challenge a workers’ compensation claim, that issue would be difficult.

A number of states, but not Arizona, have passed legislation to say that if a worker acquires COVID-19, they’ll be presumptively entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. But most people who do get COVID-19 recover in the span of a couple of weeks. And workers’ compensation is really not designed to provide benefits for short-term illnesses. The Family Medical Leave Act would provide some benefits. But that is generally unpaid leave, although recent federal legislation provides for up to two weeks of paid leave for employees who have contracted COVID-19 or have been ordered to quarantine due to exposure and who work for employers with fewer than 500 employees.

Q: Should employers be testing employees at work and how do they take into account individuals with disabilities?

A: There are a lot of different issues in terms of what employers can do to try and ensure a safe workplace, and those questions are starting to come up now. The federal government has provided pretty limited guidance in terms of what employers can and can't do or rather should and shouldn't do, is probably more accurate. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said it's permissible, in the context of disability law, to take temperatures and generally to test individuals for COVID-19, even though the disabilities law would generally restrict the use of medical tests. I don't think too many employers are likely to be sued for testing. They could be sued if they released the information as to who tested positive. That would likely be a privacy violation, and a potential violation under the American Disabilities Act.

Q: What are some trends you see looking ahead?

A: The issue we’re all talking about and will be for a long time is how are employers and employees going to adapt moving forward? It's one thing to get people back to work, but it's another to try and figure out how to deal with this virus in a potentially long-term setting. In a lot of workplaces, a question will be whether remote work is going to become more standard. Facebook and Google have said that their employees can continue working at home through the year. Facebook and Twitter are creating the options for permanent remote work as well. Many employers resisted extensive work at home for employees for years. Right now there's certainly a lot more going on. It seems that in many workplaces they're finding that it's not so disruptive and that people are being productive. I believe that will be a long-term change to the workplace.

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Depression can hit science undergrads hard: What to do about it

June 4, 2020

Researchers behind new study offer best practices to support students in lab work

Depression affected Marta’s lab research. She was so afraid to take risks it put a “short cap” on what she was able to do.

“Maybe I would’ve been able to get internships at institutions like my peers,” she said. “But instead, because I was so limited by my depression, it kept me from doing that.”

She isn't alone. About 25% of U.S. college students self-report a diagnosis with depression, according to estimates.

A recent study explored depression among undergrads doing scientific research. Half of the students sampled nationally from public Research I institutions consider leaving their undergraduate research experience early. About half of those students, or 25% of all students, ultimately do.

About 34% cited a negative lab environment and 33% cited negative relationships with their mentors as factors that caused them to leave. Student depression may be exacerbated in challenging undergraduate research experiences; studies have shown that depression is positively correlated with student stress.

Katelyn Cooper, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida and formerly a postdoctoral scholar in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, was the lead author of the study.

“I’ve been really interested in how mental health affects our students because we know how prevalent mental health concerns are among students,” Cooper said. “Research shows about a quarter of students are affected by depression. That’s a conservative number. But we don’t know how, and that’s what inspired me.”

Cooper and her colleagues interviewed 35 undergraduate researchers majoring in the life sciences from 12 research-intensive public universities across the United States who identify with having depression.

Students reported that depression contributed to lower exam grades, lower course grades and not completing or dropping a course. Students in the natural sciences may be particularly at risk for depression. Those majors are competitive and coursework is often perceived to “weed students out.”

Some research is embedded into formal lab courses as course-based undergraduate research experiences, but most of it entails working with faculty in their research labs.

These research experiences in faculty labs are often added on top of a student’s normal coursework, so they essentially become an extracurricular activity that they have to juggle with classes, work and a personal life.

Doing research, especially under a principal investigator, is not like taking a lab in a class. It’s much more intense.

“The reality is doing undergraduate research is stressful for a lot of these students,” said Sara Brownell, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and co-author of the study. Part of the stress is constant failure, which is a natural part of science.

“A lot of experiments are going to fail,” Brownell said. “We know that 90% of things in science fail. …That often exacerbates the feelings of ‘I’m not good enough,’ ‘I can’t do it,’ that kind of thing.”

Cooper said that needs to be made more clear.

“Failure is a normal part of science,” she said. “It’s something to expect to fail, and that’s OK. You try and try again and that’s how great discoveries are made. … Maybe for a lot of these students it’s not being made explicit.”

Poor mentoring also negatively affects undergraduate researchers. Specifically, one study of 33 undergraduate researchers who had conducted research at 10 institutions identified seven major ways that they experienced negative mentoring: absenteeism, abuse of power, interpersonal mismatch, lack of career support, lack of psychosocial support, misaligned expectations and unequal treatment.

That was the most surprising finding in the study to Cooper — the extent to which people can affect people with depression, both positively and negatively. Several respondents reported a grad student in a bad mood or an impatient faculty member brought on bouts of depression.

At the beginning of the semester Brownell sends an email to her students: “Just to be clear I want to acknowledge I know mental health is a major problem for folks, and I want to acknowledge you can take a mental health day and you don’t have to tell me that,” her message reads. “You can just say you’re not feeling well.”

“I think that’s made a lot of students feel way more comfortable,” she said. “I think revealing it helps that mentoring relationship a lot, because then I can be much more understanding and supportive realizing they are struggling with depression.”

The authors came up with a list of recommendations to make research more welcoming for students with depression.

  • Recognize student depression as a valid illness. Allow students with depression to take time off by simply saying that they are sick and provide appropriate time for students to recover from depressive episodes. Also, make an effort to destigmatize mental health issues.
  • Foster a positive lab environment. Mentors need to be conscious of their behavior so that they do not unintentionally promote competition among undergraduates or express favoritism toward current or past undergraduates. Praise is likely best used without comparison with others and not done in a public way.
  • Develop more personal relationships with undergraduate researchers and provide sufficient guidance. Make an effort to establish more personal relationships with undergrads and ensure that they perceive that they have access to sufficient help and guidance with regard to their research.
  • Treat undergraduates with respect and remember to praise them. Avoid providing harsh criticism and remember to praise undergraduates. Students with depression often have low self-esteem and are especially self-critical. Praise can help calibrate overly negative self-perceptions.
  • Normalize failure and be explicit about the importance of research contributions. Explicitly remind students that failure is expected in research. Explain to students how their individual work relates to the overall project so that they can understand how their contributions are important. It can also be helpful to explain to students why the research project as a whole is important in the context of the greater scientific community.

“One important takeaway from this study is that we’re treating depression as a valid illness,” Cooper said. “We’re treating it like any illness in that we’re giving students room to recover from a mental health issue just like a physical issue.”

Mental health resources at ASU

Mental health support at ASU is available 24/7. During business hoursMondays: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Fridays: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., come to any of the four ASU Counseling Services campus locations or call and ask to speak with a counselor. No appointment necessary. 

  • Downtown Phoenix: 602-496-1155
  • Polytechnic: 480-727-1255
  • Tempe: 480-965-6146
  • West: 602-543-8125

To search for community mental health providers: Use the ASU Community Link at

For after-hours/weekend mental health concerns: Call EMPACT’s 24-hour ASU-dedicated crisis hotline: 480-921-1006. Alternatively, use the crisis textline: Text HOME To 741741

For students enrolled through ASU Online, counseling is available through 360 Life Services, a free, 24/7 counseling and crisis intervention service. Staff can be contacted at 833-223-9883 or visit

Top image credit: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News