Thousands forced back into unsafe job conditions as the pandemic refuses to understand economics

Thousands forced back into unsafe job conditions as the pandemic refuses to understand economics

Today I received an email from the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas (where I apparently stayed many years ago, back when the world was different). Their president and COO proudly announced that, as of today, they are open for business and welcoming eager patrons. In “reimagining our entire resort experience,” the casino has implemented “eight hundred cleaning initiatives” and “adjustments that reflect the latest guidance from the local health district, as well as the CDC and WHO.” As for their staff, they assure me: “Our Team Members may be wearing face masks, but know we are still smiling beneath them.”

It’s not my intention to hurt the Venetian’s prospects or those of any particular business here, but I will say that the last place in the world you can expect to find me is at a Las Vegas casino. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which being that it would require air travel, and thus sitting beneath a highly recirculating air conditioning system, likely directly next to someone whose health or social history I have no idea about. I’m not particularly susceptible to COVID-19, but my parents are, and I visit them periodically while keeping a safe distance. I also have a wife and children, so in my considered judgment, as much as I might enjoy wistfully sipping a margarita and looking over the rolling faux-river that winds its way through the hotel, it would not be reasonable for me to patronize the Venetian at any time in the near future.

As a consumer, I have that choice. No one can force me to get on a plane and no one can force me into their hotel or casino. No one can force me into a restaurant or to attend a basketball game. Nor would anyone think of trying to do that, particularly now. Hundreds of thousands of American workers, though, are finding out that they have no such option.

If a business owner doesn’t take the pandemic seriously, he doesn’t take my life seriously. Or that of my family, or the people I continue to carefully interact with. As businesses begin reopening, there will be a large contingent—possibly a significant majority—of Americans who simply will not budge to patronize them because (in most cases) there is simply no way to trust whether they are being run by someone who takes the pandemic seriously, or someone who, like Donald Trump and many, many other Republicans, regards it as an overblown hoax and laughs at people wearing masks.

But back to the employees who are facing retaliation if they attempt to stay home and stay safe, as reported in the The New York Times:

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.

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.

The recent protests for Black lives, which seem to have shaken white Americans to their senses (for a few weeks at least) as they are again presented with the realities of American racism and police brutality, have coincided with the reopening of businesses in several states. Most media coverage has understandably shifted from the COVID-19 pandemic to the protests even as workers are still being recalled into the workplace.

Unlike the media, which tends to focus on just one issue at a time, the pandemic hasn’t taken a break. It’s not taking a breather, and it doesn’t understand that summer’s nearly here and people want to enjoy it and each other. The novel coronavirus certainly doesn’t give a damn about Black lives. Nor does it particularly care about unemployment numbers, consumer confidence, or the GDP. That’s just not the way viruses work.

The whole point of these last three months of lockdowns was to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system, not to “get rid” of the virus. The other point was to allow a competent federal government time to mobilize resources in order to safely reopen society, with a massive and comprehensive testing regimen so businesses could more intelligently determine their relative risk. It was time given to establish a uniform standard of protective measures to safely protect their workers as best they could.

The healthcare system thus far has not been overwhelmed. That part seems to be succeeding, at least up to this point. But there has been no visible improvement in the federal response thanks almost entirely to the staggering incompetence and ineptitude of the Donald Trump administration, which appears, for the most part, to have simply moved on since its handling of the pandemic is such a political loser. There is now a huge disconnect between the eagerness of state governors to reopen businesses and the reality that nothing has fundamentally changed about the pandemic. The threat of widespread infection has been temporarily slowed by the last three months of social distancing, but it is nowhere close to being eliminated or contained.

While the stress of social distancing weighs equally on everyone, and its hardly surprising that people are aching to get outside as the summer months arrive, Republican-led states, in particular, seem to have developed a curious case of amnesia about the entire purpose of the lockdowns. This amnesia seems to manifest itself in a collective resolution to simply ignore the pandemic from this point forward. An “enough is enough” attitude, so to speak … as if we are the ones who get to make that call.

Naturally it is the Republican-led states that have made the harshest efforts to force people back into the workplace, including encouraging businesses to report workers who fail to return out of fear of the coronavirus.

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.

Employees thus summoned into workplaces have little recourse. The worst aspect of this is that the businesses in these red states are often run by people who by nature take a dim view towards the pandemic’s seriousness. These are the exact people who you’d expect to ignore or pay only mild lip service to “social distancing” or any state guidelines. And why should they? The guidelines are not being enforced. Local health departments can’t possibly inspect all of the workplaces in their counties; they don’t have the people or the resources for that. Neither do the states. The federal government is completely AWOL thanks to an official policy of “leaving it to the employers.”

Nobody seems to have asked what happens if the employers just don’t comply. The failure to take these measures seriously has already become clear in some of the mostly unregulated businesses in the country, such as the meatpacking industry, as Eater reports.

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.

For a large portion of the country, the entire premise of reopening the economy appears to be predicated on some magical thinking about the willingness of employers and businesses to comply with a regimen of safety measures that many may not even think are necessary. On top of this, the disparity in bargaining power between workers and their employers has never been greater. With 42 million workers unemployed, an employer has the luxury of simply terminating any employee who refuses to return to the workplace because there are plenty more desperate enough to accept those subpar conditions. Employees, on the other hand, have no leverage—they can’t even get unemployment benefits if they choose not to risk the lives of themselves and their families by venturing into a potentially dangerous workplace.

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.

We do not live in a particularly healthy nation—in fact we have the highest obesity rate of any country. As more and more businesses reopen in states with no serious safety mandates, inevitably the more susceptible people in those states are going to get sick. When they come home, their families are going to get sick, and some of them are going to die. The federal government and most states have failed completely to follow through with the widespread tracking and testing that was needed, and they have failed to establish and enforce the protective safety standards that are needed even while their state’s employees are being forced back to work. Those who refuse to go back out of legitimate fear are in many states—particularly Republican ones—essentially condemning themselves to practical destitution, and even worse for some, loss of their healthcare coverage. Unlike the consumers who these businesses so desperately need, these workers have no choice. 

This is not the way American workers expect to be treated, with their own lives and those of their families callously put at risk because of their government’s incompetence in dealing with this pandemic.

At no other time in modern American history have American workers been treated with this blatant disregard. The whole debate on reopening businesses seems to have a blind spot: We are not simply weighing the economic benefits against the health of one worker— we’re weighing them against the health of the worker’s family, and anyone they come into contact with. Those are the considerations the people profiled by The Times are being forced to make. And despite it all, as painful as it is, many are still choosing not to go back to work anyway.

People put into a desperate position through no fault of their own tend to become angry. In November, they’re going to take out their anger on someone. My strong suspicion is that it will be the Republican Party.

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