As States Reopen, Workers Are Forced To Choose Between Health And Wages As Maryland and Virginia gradually allow businesses to reopen amid the public health crisis, workers are anxious they'll be called back to work before they're ready to return.
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NPR logo As States Reopen, Workers Are Forced To Choose Between Health And Wages

As States Reopen, Workers Are Forced To Choose Between Health And Wages

Retail stores reopened to customers on May 1 in Castle Rock, Colo., when restrictions put in place to curb the coronavirus were rolled back. David Zalubowski/AP Photo hide caption

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David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Arleetta Hunter is worried about going back to work at Macy's.

She's thinking about air circulation. What if coronavirus is lurking in the HVAC system? What about the stream of shoppers who stroll past the perfume counter she manages, absentmindedly sweeping their hands across the merchandise? What about customers who don't wear masks, who get too close?

"Imagine you're out working in that environment," says Hunter. "We're in there all day, eight hour shifts, seeing different people over and over."

These are the thoughts occupying Hunter's mind as she anticipates being called back to the Montgomery County department store where she's worked for 11 years. And she doesn't want to go back until she feels safe.

Workers across the Washington region are feeling similarly anxious as employers begin to reopen in response to relaxed stay-at-home orders in parts of Maryland and Virginia. The District and close-in counties have yet to reopen, but some furloughed employees still fear they could be forced to return too early, summoned by businesses eager to get cash registers ringing again. They worry their bosses won't provide them with enough protective equipment. And they wonder how safe any workplace could be during a pandemic. Are hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes really going to cut it?

"How can you have someone wipe down a whole store, all day?" Hunter asks.

A Macy's spokesperson says the retailer will implement health and safety standards in line with CDC recommendations, local orders and mall policies as it reopens stores across the country. For many workers, that's not enough, but they have little choice. Staying home means going without income — either wages or unemployment benefits.

Furloughed employees collecting unemployment risk their eligibility for payments if they refuse work out of fear of the virus, says Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. To qualify for benefits, workers have to prove they're out of work through no fault of their own — because they're under a stay-at-home order, they've been diagnosed with the illness or their childcare provider has been shut down during the pandemic, for example. Workers can also refuse work that's clearly unsafe. But a general fear of getting sick may not be sufficient.

"You have to have a good reason to not return to work," Stettner says.

States including Alabama, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee are aggressively enforcing this rule. Ohio's unemployment office asked employers to report workers who refuse to return to work for health and safety reasons, deeming it unemployment fraud. Virginia, Maryland and D.C. haven't taken an equally hard line, but employers can still report workers who refuse to come back to work, putting their benefits in jeopardy.

The AFL-CIO labor union has sued the federal agency that oversees workplace safety in an effort to force employers to tighten health and safety standards. Meanwhile, a bill expected in the U.S. Senate could also allow employers to avoid pandemic-related litigation, leaving workers with little recourse if they get sick on the job.

As governors lift stay-at-home orders — particularly in Republican-controlled states — labor advocates have contended that doing so could be an underhanded attempt to kick workers off unemployment. It's easier for workers to collect the payments if they've been mandated to stay home. Republicans have argued that expanded benefits provided under the federal CARES Act could incentivize people to remain unemployed, especially when the benefits program pays better than their jobs.

But many workers say they'd gladly return to work if they didn't have to worry about developing a potentially fatal illness.

Sharon Lucas-Smith, a room attendant at the Marriott Marquis hotel in downtown Washington, was happy to hear that Marriott is raising is cleanliness standards during the health crisis. But she wants the hotel chain to be more proactive about the coronavirus.

"They need to have everybody tested before they come back in to the workplace," Lucas-Smith says.

The housekeeper is a member of Unite Here Local 25, a union that represents more than 7,000 hotel, restaurant and casino workers in the Washington region. The organization has an informal agreement with its employers to be flexible with workers who aren't ready to return.

"We have language in our contract about health and safety on the job as well as a reasonable workload," says Benjy Cannon, a spokesperson for Local 25. The union has asked employers to not contest any workers who opt to stay home out of concerns for health or safety.

"If any part of the pandemic is making them nervous about returning, they're under no obligation to," Cannon says.

Other employers have similar arrangements with workers on a case-by-case basis. Zac Hoffman, a bartender who serves as vice president of the D.C. Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance, says his employer has given him the option to stay home — and on unemployment benefits — if he feels unsafe returning to work when D.C. bars reopen.

"We need to get back to work. That's really important. But at the same time, you can't [risk] potentially dying," Hoffman says.

Andrew Stettner with the Century Foundation says more employers should consider such agreements.

"It's a win-win," the senior fellow says. "When the company hires somebody, they train them, they get used to them and they don't want to lose them. Once you get into a situation where they're going to deny that person unemployment benefits because they refuse to work, both parties are going to be done with each other. And that's not to anybody's benefit."

Despite Macy's financial problems — the department store is trying to raise billions of dollars to avoid bankruptcy during the pandemic — employee Arleetta Hunter says she hopes to retire from the store one day. She thinks the company has treated workers well during the health crisis so far, paying them two weeks' leave after they closed stores and continuing to cover their medical insurance premiums. But if stores reopen during the public health crisis, she wants to see added protections like enforced social distancing, Plexiglass and employee-only restrooms.

"They need to show me that they're actually going to be taking care of our safety just as much as the customers'," Hunter says. "Because if they make that decision to open up, and some of us get sick, what can they say? That they're sorry?"

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