‘I don’t want to go back to work and die.’ That’s the choice Congress, states have given workers

‘I don’t want to go back to work and die.’ That’s the choice Congress, states have given workers

The Senate is dragging its heels over extending enhanced unemployment benefits, saying that people are choosing to stay on unemployment rather than go back to work. Well, some of them are. They’re doing so because they’re worried their bosses won’t protect them from coronavirus.

Like Jake Lyon and five of his coworkers in Colorado, who were ordered back to work at the tea shop where they were employed, but wanted to make sure that coming back was safe. Lyon told The New York Times about how they asked their boss to delay reopening and to meet with them to discuss how they could operate safely. For their concern, they were fired. Not just fired: their employer reported them to the state’s unemployment office to have their benefits revoked. That’s real life out here in America, real life that seems to be escaping the notice of too many congressional leaders who seem content to wait another two months—until the end of July—to take further action.

Some states—Oklahoma and Ohio in particular—are encouraging employers to report employees who have refused to return to work and in Oklahoma’s case, created a dedicated email address for businesses to do just that. Alabama and South Carolina are also telling people to choose: chance getting sick and dying at your job, or give up eating and having a home. Tennessee’s labor commissioner has made it official, declaring that the only people who can refuse to return to work and keep their benefits have to either be diagnosed with the virus, caring for a family member with it, or confined to quarantine because of exposure to it. You can’t refuse to go back to work, no matter how dangerous your job might be.

Robin Slater, a 65-year old line cook in a sports bar in Boise, Idaho, also talked to The New York Times about that. He has lung issues from 40 years as a smoker. He’s the only employee there who wears a mask, and his employer isn’t following the state or city guidelines for restaurants. The bar itself had established a limit of six people in a party but 14 people came in last Sunday, and were all seated together. He has to work. “Most of our servers and cooks are in their 20s and 30s,” Slater said. “They’re all like, ‘It doesn’t really matter.’ But I don’t want to go back to work and die.” It’s that or lose his unemployment.

He’s 65. He has trouble breathing. And he has to work as a line cook to survive. That’s who Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins think shouldn’t be getting too much help from their government.

And this is also the problem with the approach Democrats and Republicans alike took in responding to this crisis. What should have been happening from the beginning is sustained direct payments to everyone apart from unemployment benefits, and government subsidization of business payrolls. That would sustain workers and it would allow businesses to keep them employed and keep the businesses afloat—without putting anyone’s life in danger.

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