As the country strives to reopen its economy, employers are calling people back to work despite warnings from public health officials and medical experts.
Dr. Anthony Fauci testified Tuesday in front of the Senate Health Committee that reopening the country prematurely could have dire consequences for the health of the American public and the economy.
“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, could even set you back not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to get economic recovery,” Fauci told committee members.
Public health officials, including Fauci and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Robert Redfield, who also appeared before the committee, agree that the availability of testing is essential for the country to reopen.
Despite the grim predictions from health professionals, workers are being called back to work amid mixed messaging from federal and local governments and vague, sometimes contradictory, guidelines for employers regarding how to provide safe working conditions for staff.
The uncertainty has led to reluctance from employees to return to work. But in many states, workers don’t have a choice.
State unemployment criteria generally call for applicants to have “good cause” for refusing to return to work, and the CARES Act does not provide for its extended benefits to cover people who don’t meet those requirements.
The CARES Act, which granted an additional $600 to the regular state unemployment insurance, covers workers who meet the following criteria:
- The person has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or is experiencing symptoms and is seeking medical diagnosis.
- A member of the individual’s household has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
- The individual is providing care for a family member or member of the household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
- A child or other person in the household for which the individual has primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or another facility that is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 emergency, and the school or day care is required for the individual to work.
- The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because of a COVID-19 quarantine.
- The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because a health care professional has advised him or her to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 concerns.
- The individual was scheduled to commence employment and does not have a job or is unable to reach the job as a direct result of COVID-19.
- The individual has become the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of the household has died as a direct result of COVID-19.
- The individual has quit his/her job as a direct result of COVID-19.
- The individual’s place of employment is closed as a direct result of COVID-19.
Since the initial outbreak of the novel coronavirus, more than 30 million jobs have been lost, placing unprecedented strain on state unemployment programs.
In many states, workers receive more money through the boosted unemployment benefits than they would by going back to work. This fact, in combination with anxieties about contracting COVID-19, offers little incentive to low-earning, nonessential workers to return to the workplace.
A poll of 1,005 adults conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland revealed that a majority of Americans would be uncomfortable going into a retail store or dining in a restaurant.
In Los Angeles County, Mayor Eric Garcetti told ABC News that stay-at-home orders will be extended into July as other parts of the state are moving into phase two of the reopening.
“We have to all recognize that we’re not moving beyond COVID-19. We’re learning to live with it,” Garcetti said, emphasizing that it is “as dangerous today as it was the first day that it arrived in our cities and our country.”
California State University will keep its 23 campuses closed for in-person instruction, directing its 500,000 students to online courses for the fall. And Georgia’s mayor has issued a new executive order stating that live venues, bars and nightclubs will remain closed through the end of May.
Dissonance Among Federal and State Officials
But across the nation, local lawmakers and government officials are feeling the pressure from protestors in their cities and the federal government to get people back to work and set their economies back on track.
This pressure to ease restrictions has resulted in inconsistent strategies and unenforceable guidelines from the CDC.
People are going back to work in states where guidance stressing that they should not reopen until they have seen a 14-day decrease in cases has not been followed.
Workers Have Limited Options
There is little workers can do when faced with the choice between returning to a workplace where they may be exposed to the coronavirus or refusing to go back to work and losing their unemployment benefits.
Unemployment lawyers warn that it would be difficult to cite coronavirus exposure as good cause for quitting a job, and the U.S. Department of Labor has issued guidance to states regarding “fraud and abuse in their unemployment insurance systems.”
Debbie Berkowitz, Worker Safety and Health program director for the National Employment Law Project told USA Today “about 4,000 coronavirus-related complaints have been filed against employers that fail to provide safe workplaces, but [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] has not issued any citations or fines.”
Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire Mark Cuban conducted his own investigation of Dallas businesses, hiring secret shoppers to see if fully reopened restaurants and retail stores were following voluntary and mandatory protocols, such as single-use condiments and sanitized shopping carts. The shoppers reported that 96 percent of businesses were not compliant.
During Tuesday’s hearing, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut demanded answers from the COVID-19 task force regarding the CDC guidance for schools, child care and summer camps that was leaked last week.
“But we’re reopening in Connecticut in five days, in 10 days. This guidance isn’t going to be useful to us in two weeks. So is it this week? Is it next week? When are we going to get this expertise from the federal government?” Murphy pressed.
A May 12, 2020, Brookings report posited that the need for a fair and equitable solution is evident. The report, titled “Debunking myths about COVID-19 relief’s ‘unemployment on steroids,’” points to available solutions for “inclusive recovery” and offers a clear explanation of what the federal government’s response to large-scale unemployment really means for employers and workers.
Some of these solutions involve implementing existing programs such as partial unemployment insurance and “work share” options, while others promote new measures such as full wage replacement.
This, the authors argue, could “stem a negative chain reaction throughout the economy, reducing the need for even more government intervention elsewhere” because unemployment benefit recipients will recycle that money into the economy.
But until leaders develop a scalable unemployment insurance policy and states have adequate testing and contact tracing, workers need to know how to apply for unemployment in their state and what they are eligible to receive, and they must continue to implement social distancing rules at work and in other public places.