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COVID-19

Workers forced to choose between feeling safe and jobs

Andy Uhler May 6, 2020
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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
Heard on:
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

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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