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Workers Fearful of the Coronavirus Are Getting Fired and Losing Their Benefits

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DENVER - After scraping by for weeks on unemployment checks and peanut butter sandwiches, Jake Lyon recently received the call that many who temporarily lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic have anticipated. The college-town tea shop where he worked was reopening, and it was time to go back.

But Mr. Lyon, 23, and his co-workers in Fort Collins, Colo., who were temporarily laid off, worried about contracting the virus, so they asked the shop’s owners to delay reopening and meet with them to discuss safety measures. The reluctance cost them. Six of them permanently lost their jobs in May, and their former employer reported them to the state’s unemployment office to have their benefits potentially revoked.

You have all refused to go back to work,” their former boss wrote in an email. As people across the United States are told to return to work, employees who balk at the health risks say they are being confronted with painful reprisals: Some are losing their jobs if they try to stay home, and thousands more are being reported to the state to have their unemployment benefits cut off.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to strain the economy. On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that 1.9 million Americans filed new claims for state unemployment insurance last week. Businesses want to bring back customers and profits. But workers now worry about contracting the coronavirus once they return to cramped restaurant kitchens, dental offices or conference rooms where few colleagues are wearing masks.

Some states with a history of weaker labor protections are encouraging employers to report workers who do not return to their jobs, citing state laws that disqualify people from receiving unemployment checks if they refuse a reasonable offer of work. Oklahoma set up a Return To Work email address for businesses to report employees who turn down jobs. Ohio offered a similar way for employers to report coronavirus-related work refusals.

Labor advocates and unions say the push to recall workers and kick reluctant employees off unemployment benefits carries grave risks in an age of coronavirus, when infections have rampaged through meatpacking plants, call centers, factories and other confined spaces where co-workers spend hours touching the same surfaces and breathing the same air.

Their choices are:Do I go back and risk my life, or say no and risk being kicked off unemployment and not be able to pay my bills? said Rachel Bussett, an employment lawyer in Oklahoma, where 179 businesses have reported workers to the unemployment agency.

In Tennessee, where 735 workers have been reported for refusing to return to work, the state labor commissioner announced that the fear of contracting the coronavirus was not a good enough excuse to not go back. To continue to qualify for unemployment, workers need to be directly affected by the virus: They must have a diagnosed case of Covid-19, be caring for a patient or be confined by a quarantine, among other reasons outlined by Congress in the coronavirus stimulus law that was passed in March.

The question has split along partisan lines, with some Republican politicians and business owners complaining that furloughed workers have little incentive to go back to work if they are earning more from the emergency aid passed by Congress.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, recently told a Senate panel that workers who turned down their old jobs could be ineligible for unemployment payments. But Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor took a different view, saying that workers should refuse to go back to jobs they consider unsafe.

This is uncharted waters,” said Kersha Cartwright, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Labor, which has encouraged businesses to work with employees on reopening plans after the state became one of the first in the country to forge ahead with reopening.

In interviews across the country, workers said they were anxious to keep their jobs at a time when the economic devastation of the coronavirus has left more than 40 million in the country out of work. With the job market bleak and many family members unemployed, many people said they felt powerless to refuse an order to return to work or question the safety practices at their jobs.

In the tea shop case, Mr. Lyon lost his unemployment benefits after his former bosses reported him to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The state agency ruled that Mr. Lyon’s work “did not present an unacceptable risk” to his health, and disqualified him from unemployment for 20 weeks.

What we’re asking for is so basic during an unprecedented global pandemic,” Mr. Lyon said.

But Qin Liu, who owns the tea shop, the Ku Cha House of Tea, with his wife, said they had tried to accommodate their employees’ safety concerns by limiting customers in the store, installing a sneeze guard at the cash register, requiring masks and halting tea services and free samples of their teas. But he said his business would founder if it stayed closed until there was a vaccine or cure. They wanted to wait a little bit longer till the danger has passed,” Mr. Liu said. But for us, a small business, the danger is imminent.”

Mr. Liu said the business was also obligated under Colorado labor laws to notify the state when they dismissed the six workers, inciting the unemployment investigation.

In Toledo, Ohio, Stephanie VanSlambrouck, 45, said she urged her husband to quit when he was called back to his job as a steel fabricator after weeks of working from home. He reads blueprints and pores over figures all day, and has little need to go into the office, Ms. VanSlambrouck said. But the couple have three children, and had already lost their home to foreclosure once, after the 2008 housing crash. So now, her husband eats lunch at his desk, sanitizes his hands and wears a mask to the Monday morning planning meetings in the small conference room. The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice Updated June 5, 2020

  • How does blood type influence coronavirus? A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

  • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.? The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

  • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus? Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

  • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown? Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

  • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out? States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

  • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface? Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

  • What are the symptoms of coronavirus? Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

  • How can I protect myself while flying? If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

  • How do I take my temperature? Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.

  • Should I wear a mask? The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

  • What should I do if I feel sick? If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

  • How do I get tested? If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.

We’re caught,” Ms. VanSlambrouck said. “We have to do what our bosses are telling us. And to quit a job in this uncertain time would be ridiculous. You can’t walk away from something that’s providing food for the family because who knows what’s going to happen in a week?”

Mark Adani, a car salesman in suburban Detroit, spent weeks working from home to avoid the coronavirus. He is 71 and has high blood pressure and a wife with heart trouble. But he recently got an ultimatum from his dealership: Come back to the office or consider a new job.

I’m damned if I come to work, damned if I don’t come to work,” he said. Mr. Adani said one worker had already died of Covid-19, and he flirted with letting his bosses dismiss him when he was called back to the office. Ultimately, he decided to go back. He was unable to reach anyone from Michigan’s overwhelmed unemployment system to answer whether he could refuse to go back and still retain his benefits.

With customers scarce, Mr. Adani said he spent much of the day at his desk, chasing online leads and worrying about bringing home the virus to his wife. Most of his co-workers slip on masks when they head to the break room for coffee. “I really don’t feel this place is safe,” Mr. Adani said.

Nurses, grocery store workers, fast-food cashiers, slaughterhouse workers and others deemed “essential” have been navigating these fears throughout the pandemic because they never stopped working. Now, the concern is spreading to wider areas of the economy.

In Boise, Idaho, Robin Slater, a 65-year-old line cook with chronic shortness of breath from 40 years of smoking, said he was reluctant to answer the call back to work at the sports bar where he constantly bumps up against other cooks in the tiny kitchen. He said he was the only one who wore a mask. The plan, he said, was to limit tables to six people or fewer, though a party of 14 came in to eat last Sunday.

Mr. Slater said he had little choice other than returning to work because he was almost certain to lose his $220 in weekly unemployment, supplemented by the $600 passed as part of the coronavirus relief bill. So far, 147 workers in Idaho have been reported as refusing to work, though the state did not say how many had lost benefits.

Mr. Slater’s uneasiness has not gone away after his first few shifts, though few others at work seem bothered.

Most of our servers and cooks are in their 20s and 30s,” Mr. Slater said. “They’re all like, ‘It doesn’t really matter.’ But I don’t want to go back to work and die.”

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