COVID-19

Workers forced to choose between feeling safe and jobs

Andy Uhler May 6, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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A customer waits his turn for a haircut in Lilburn, Georgia, on April 24, the day the governor allowed some businesses such as barbershops to reopen. Tami Chappell/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Workers forced to choose between feeling safe and jobs

Andy Uhler May 6, 2020
A customer waits his turn for a haircut in Lilburn, Georgia, on April 24, the day the governor allowed some businesses such as barbershops to reopen. Tami Chappell/AFP via Getty Images
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President Donald Trump said this morning that his coronavirus task force will continue its work but with a focus on “safety and reopening the country.”

More and more businesses are preparing to reopen. Gap, for example, plans to open as many as 800 stores by the end of the month, and some stores in Texas could open as early as this weekend.

More than 40 states have announced plans to lift restrictions, clearing the way for more people to return to work, whether they feel comfortable returning or not.

Michelle was furloughed in March from her job as a volunteer coordinator at a nonprofit in Dallas (we’re not using her last name because she fears reprisal from her employer for speaking out).

She was asked to come back to work on April 27, but she’s still at home. She has a 2-year-old, and, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — the relief package passed in late March — she’s able to take more time off at two-thirds of her salary. She asked for three weeks.

“But I don’t really know what’s going to happen at the end of the three weeks, if those will be extended,” she said. “I know some things are opening back up, but I don’t really like the idea of being a guinea pig.”

She fears getting sick when she does goes back to work. 

Michelle figured out a way to extend her benefits, even though she was called back to work. Of course, not everyone has that option. 

“When you become unemployed, historically, you’ve had to identify that you are actively seeking employment,” said Tom Smith, associate professor of finance at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. 

“So if you have work available, you’re not really considered unemployed, right?” Smith said. “You’re making a choice. You typically would be denied unemployment insurance if you have an opportunity to go back to work and you choose not to.”

Eventually, unemployment benefits are going to run out, and people need to work. But Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, said that’s going to put many people in a tough spot.

“One could make the argument that going back to work in a COVID environment is no longer suitable, that the working conditions aren’t similar to what they were when they worked at the job before,” Evermore said.

As for Michelle in Dallas, she’s unclear about her work future. 

“I don’t have any volunteers to manage. So I don’t really know what things are going to look like when I do go back eventually,” she said.

She said even though she was called back last week, she’s worried she’ll eventually be laid off.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s going on with extra COVID-19 unemployment benefits?

The latest: President Donald Trump signed an executive action directing $400 extra a week in unemployment benefits. But will that aid actually reach people? It’s still unclear. Trump directed federal agencies to send $300 dollars in weekly aid, taken from the federal disaster relief fund, and called on states to provide an additional $100. But states’ budgets are stretched thin as it is.

What’s the latest on evictions?

For millions of Americans, things are looking grim. Unemployment is high, and pandemic eviction moratoriums have expired in states across the country. And as many people already know, eviction is something that can haunt a person’s life for years. For instance, getting evicted can make it hard to rent again. And that can lead to spiraling poverty.

Which retailers are requiring that people wear masks when shopping? And how are they enforcing those rules?

Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, CVS, Home Depot, Costco — they all have policies that say shoppers are required to wear a mask. When an employee confronts a customer who refuses, the interaction can spin out of control, so many of these retailers are telling their workers to not enforce these mandates. But, just having them will actually get more people to wear masks.

You can find answers to more questions on unemployment benefits and COVID-19 here.

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