Temporary Pay Bumps Ending; Rural America Reacts To Lockdown : Consider This from NPR Democrats want another coronavirus relief bill. A sticking point for Republicans is $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits — which means some workers have been able to collect more money on unemployment than they did in their previous jobs.

Essential workers who have continued to work may have received temporary wage bumps. But NPR's Alina Selyukh reports many companies are ending that hazard pay.

Challenges to statewide stay-at-home orders are mounting in rural communities that have few coronavirus cases. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on the dispute in Baker County, Oregon.

Plus, experts weigh in on the safety of different summer activities.

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This episode was recorded and published as part of this podcast's former 'Coronavirus Daily' format.
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The Rural/Urban Divide; Safe Summer Activities

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The Rural/Urban Divide; Safe Summer Activities

The Rural/Urban Divide; Safe Summer Activities

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/864736840/865808041" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Every state in the country has lifted at least some restrictions on businesses and public spaces. In many states, you can eat out again, even go to church, get a haircut.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We would have to be extraordinarily lucky not to have people with disease in some of those spaces. So I think it's a bit of a roulette game.


MCEVERS: Rochelle Walensky is chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.


WALENSKY: We know that there is still community spread of this virus. We certainly are not at the point where we have contained everybody who has it, that we know who they all are, and we've contact traced all of their, you know, contacts.

MCEVERS: Scientists do expect to see cases go up as things reopen. They know that people who get the virus sometimes don't feel sick for a week if ever. And the most serious symptoms can take two to three weeks to show up which means it'll be at least mid-June before we really know how things are going. Coming up, a rural county in Oregon with one case of the virus, what it's like to wear a mask there, and what's risky and what's not this summer. This is CORONAVIRUS DAILY from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Friday, May 29.

Congress authorized $3 trillion in pandemic relief spending in March and April. Since then, Republicans in the Senate have said the country needs to pause for more time before there's another relief bill.


NANCY PELOSI: But all of this, all these deaths...

MCEVERS: Democrats in the House already passed one two weeks ago.


PELOSI: Mitch McConnell says no. We need to pause. We need to pause? Tell that to the virus. Is the virus taking a pause? Is hunger in America taking a pause?

MCEVERS: That was Nancy Pelosi in Washington this week. Today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans would be open to a fourth and final spending bill in about a month. One thing Democrats want is to extend federal benefits that are currently going to people who also collect state unemployment.


MCEVERS: It's an extra $600 a week, and it's set to go away at the end of July. The bill passed by House Democrats would extend it for another six months. But that's a no-go for Republicans in the Senate because, they say, many low-wage workers can collect more money on unemployment than they did in their previous jobs.


PETER GANONG: If you're a janitor and you work at a hospital, you're facing increased risk at your job and likely have not received a pay raise.

MCEVERS: Economist Peter Ganong at the University of Chicago.


GANONG: But if you're a janitor and you worked at a school that's shut down, then you actually get a 50% raise from claiming unemployment benefits.

MCEVERS: That is also a stark reminder of how low the pay is to begin with for workers who have been hardest hit by this pandemic. For those minimum wage workers at retailers and food companies who continued working through the shutdown and got a modest pay increase, most of those raises were temporary. Companies are now starting to pull them back. Here's NPR's Alina Selyukh.


ALINA SELYUKH: It's hard to say that extra $3 an hour for working in a pandemic made a dramatic difference in Sammy Conde's budget.

SAMMY CONDE: I kept buying more soup 'cause I eat a lot of soup (laughter). It helps me get, like, a little more groceries. It's really the big change.

SELYUKH: Conde is a barista at Starbucks in Orlando, an essential worker keeping locals caffeinated via drive-through windows and curbside pickup. Starbucks, like many corporations that asked employees to work during a health crisis, added lots of safety measures and perks, like new options for leave and health coverage and a big one - a temporary pay raise, $3 an hour. It bumped Conde's hourly wage to $13. That goes away this weekend.

CONDE: It feels like Starbucks could have been paying me this the whole time, and they're just choosing to do it now to help me feel better, but it's not really paying what I need.

SELYUKH: Conde's part of a worker advocacy group Fight for 15, as in dollars an hour. Alongside other labor activists, they argue raises like this at factories, warehouses, stores and restaurants should be permanent. That's partly why some companies, like Walmart and CVS, just paid one-time bonuses instead.

CHRISTINE SMITH: We're exposed to thousands of people because everybody, including those doctors and nurses, they all have to go to a grocery store to get their food.

SELYUKH: Christine Smith is a cashier at a Ralphs supermarket in California and a union shop steward with United Food & Commercial Workers. Smith says although parent company Kroger's hero pay is now gone, people who signed up to stock shelves and bag groceries are still dealing with new kinds of hazards.

SMITH: Last week I think there were three days I just woke up crying 'cause I was just like, I can't do this anymore. I'm just exhausted, and people are being so - they're yelling at us, cussing at us because we won't do returns, because we're asking them to wear a mask.

SELYUKH: These altercations are cropping up across the country as store workers take on new roles as enforcers of social distancing and mask wearing. A few have turned violent, even deadly. Someone fired a gun at McDonald's workers in Oklahoma. A Family Dollar guard was shot and killed in Michigan. Some videos like this one are going viral.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, everyone. I work for Costco, and I'm asking this member to put on a mask because that is our company policy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And I'm not doing it 'cause I woke up in a free country.

SELYUKH: The companies are in a tricky situation. Extra pay and benefits are very expensive. But a purely economic analysis of coronavirus risks that workers face suggests that, at least by one estimate, the pay bump should be 10 times bigger than a few bucks an hour. In a normal world, that might be the only way to stop workers from quitting en masse. But with tens of millions unemployed, workers have lost their leverage.

KATHARINE THOMAS: I want to stress how grateful I am because my company did not have to do that.

SELYUKH: Katharine Thomas is a cashier at a small food co-op in Wisconsin. She's getting hazard pay of $2 more. She remembers seeing people around her who lost jobs, getting not just unemployment but extra federal relief of $600 a week.

THOMAS: I felt very angry. I have to go to work, and I make less money. Being essential, $600 a week - that's almost a whole paycheck for me.

SELYUKH: She wishes for all full-time work to pay a living wage and for the federal government to do more for the essential workers who kept showing up to work.

MCEVERS: NPR's Alina Selyukh


MCEVERS: Baker County, Ore., is about 300 miles east of Portland. And the two places are far apart in other ways, too. Baker County is in a rural area, and a judge there recently rejected a stay-at-home order from Oregon's governor. The state's Supreme Court is now dealing with that. The local economy in Baker County has taken a big hit. And when it comes to the virus, compared to more than a thousand cases in Portland, Baker County has had one, just one confirmed case. NPR's Kirk Siegler has this report from Baker County.


KIRK SIEGLER: Parts of eastern Oregon lean pretty far to the right. These days, it's not uncommon to see a big Trump 2020 banner on the back of a pickup or even Confederate flags flying in yards. So Kayla Keith, who works in Baker City, wasn't too surprised when she was pumping gas the other day and got grief for wearing a mask.

SIEGLER: Very rude. And he was just making out like it wasn't something anybody needed to be concerned about. And I didn't say anything back to him, of course, because those people you can't talk to.

SIEGLER: Keith, in her 20s, lives with her elderly parents. Mom is diabetic. And dad has lung issues.

KAYLA KEITH: If they caught this, I don't like their odds. I wear a mask for the obvious reasons. You want to protect everybody else.

SIEGLER: But in a divided country, a divided town, something as small as wearing a mask can mark you on one side or the other, red versus blue, pro-science, anti-science, you're taking the virus seriously or you think it's being overblown.

BILL HARVEY: We have no vile threat that's going to be expanding around here, so why in God's name are you still holding us to restrictions?

SIEGLER: Bill Harvey is the chair of the Baker County Commission.

HARVEY: You cannot judge or control our atmosphere around here or our community based on what you think Portland area should be. It does not work.

KATHY CRAMER: This has become a rural-versus-urban issue.

SIEGLER: Kathy Cramer at the University of Wisconsin wrote a book called "The Politics of Resentment." She says there's general mistrust toward government regulations in rural America. And now coronavirus restrictions are being written that look to some like they were crafted only with city people in mind.

CRAMER: The idea that government is not attentive enough to the actual challenges of rural communities is not new, and the pandemic seems to have deepened some of the resentment that's been there for a long time.

SIEGLER: Around town, there are the conspiracy theorists, the trucks with the Ore-gun (ph) bumper stickers decrying liberals, but you also see plenty of folks walking into the Albertson's or the Safeway wearing masks. At the old stone courthouse, Republican County Commissioner Mark Bennett told me it's a misnomer that people in rural areas aren't taking the virus seriously because they don't know many people affected. Turns out, his cousin on the East Coast died from it.

MARK BENNETT: She didn't take medical services. She just thought she could tough it out. And by then, it was too late.

SIEGLER: Bennett is Baker County's incident commander for the pandemic. He led a proposal to begin reopening the county that the governor recently approved, despite the lawsuit against the statewide restrictions. They added almost 50 hospital beds and hired more than the required contact tracers. And Bennett says social distancing is mostly a way of life out here.

BENNETT: I have a 52-mile commute everyday. I think I passed one car.

SIEGLER: Officials like Bennett actually downplay the rural-urban fights in the news media. A lot of businesses in town are opening back up, though just like everywhere else, these are tough times.

SIEGLER: Jenny Mowe at Sweet Wife Baking cleared out her cafe to create a contact-free ordering area.

JENNY MOWE: So usually, we have one, two, three, four, five tables in here.

SIEGLER: Talking through her mask, Mowe says she's turned off by all the political fights. It's stressful enough trying to survive and adapt her business right now.

MOWE: I think when you get such a divisive message from leadership, I think that really hurts something like this, where we should be kind of acting as a collective and, hey, this is what we're doing as a country to get through this.

SIEGLER: For now, Mowe is just trying to get through the week and keep her doors open, let alone the next few months.

MCEVERS: NPR's Kirk Siegler.


MCEVERS: Now that Memorial Day has passed, in some ways, it feels like summer. But still, a lot of people are wondering if they can actually do the usual summer things. Experts say there are a lot of things you can do safely outside - camping, cooking out, a trip to a lake or a beach - because sunlight inactivates most of the virus on surfaces in less than 15 minutes. And it appears to be less transmissible in the open air, especially if you're social distancing and covering your face. Andrew Janowski is an infectious disease expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

ANDREW JANOWSKI: I think one of the hidden weapons that we have against this virus is actually time.

MCEVERS: He says another key - if you're not in your own tent or RV...

JANOWSKI: For the most part, a vacation home is low-risk.

MCEVERS: The virus doesn't last more than a few days on indoor surfaces.

JANOWSKI: And so the longer that nobody's been in the home, the lower risk that the virus is still present in the rental property.

MCEVERS: And you can wipe down surfaces once you arrive.


MCEVERS: For more on the coronavirus, you can stay up to date with all the news on your local public radio station. You can also write to us here at the show at coronavirusdaily@npr.org. Earlier in the show, Rochelle Walensky talked to NPR and WBUR's Here And Now. And economist Peter Ganong talks to NPR's Scott Horsley for his report on federal unemployment benefits.

This podcast is produced by Gabriela Saldivia, Anne Li and Brent Baughman and edited by Beth Donovan. Thanks for listening. I'm Kelly McEvers.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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