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‘It’s too early to go back’: Workers fear for their health and finances as states rush to reopen

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/8/2020 Tony Romm
a person walking down a sidewalk in front of a store: A worker mops the floor May 7 at the 5th Street Arcades, a selection of indoor shops in Cleveland. (Tony Dejak/AP) A worker mops the floor May 7 at the 5th Street Arcades, a selection of indoor shops in Cleveland. (Tony Dejak/AP)

The coronavirus outbreak had only just arrived in the United States when Jalia Pettis decided she was done doing her clients’ makeup.

But the 42-year-old single mother and beautician in Phoenix soon discovered she couldn’t afford to shelter in place for very long.

A financial cushion that Pettis had amassed in February quickly evaporated. Eviction warnings started to appear on her door, even though she thought she had worked out an arrangement to protect her home. And state unemployment checks simply never arrived, despite nearly two months of haggling with Arizona over the critical weekly aid.

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To Pettis, the only option was to return to work — to her profession, styling hair and makeup for people on camera — even though it might leave her vulnerable to falling ill.

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“I need to have some money coming in,” Pettis said as she drove Thursday morning to see her latest customer, “so I’m going to have to do this.”

More than 33 million Americans are unemployed, and many are finding themselves in a similar predicament: They may not be ready to retake their old jobs, but they may not have much of a choice. Their stories vary, but their fears about financial and physical safety are widely shared — illustrating how public health has been pit against economic recovery in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

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Some workers are returning to the labor force out of financial duress, taking jobs they may view as unsafe after struggling to obtain government aid. Others are under pressure from their states to return to their old roles or risk losing unemployment benefits entirely. In Ohio, which has encouraged businesses to report employees who don’t come back to work, approximately 600 employers have already turned in about 1,200 workers, the state’s labor agency said.

Retailers, restaurants and other companies that pay these Americans say they desperately need their workers back or they are certain to face permanent financial ruin, hamstringing U.S. economic recovery before it can begin in earnest. Some corporate leaders also fear their former employees have little incentive to rejoin the workforce because they’re making more money by staying on unemployment.

“We’ve heard from small-business owners who are having a difficult time trying to navigate that,” said Holly Wade, the director of research and policy analysis at the National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington trade group.

But advocates for workers’ rights say that average employees have been thrust into an unsafe, unhealthy position, with few viable options for recourse if they contract the coronavirus on the job. The White House and Republicans in Congress are pushing to create new policies that would block employees from suing their employers if they contract the virus at work.

“We’re making folks make the near-impossible choice between going to work and earning income to put food on the table, and protecting their health,” said Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning organization.

The challenges facing workers illustrate the broader complexity that comes with restarting a country’s economic engine even as a deadly disease spreads nationwide. Epidemiologists stress that the robust stay-at-home orders issued by states starting in March are critical to arresting the country’s coronavirus pandemic. But those very actions have contributed to an economic downturn that rivals even the Great Depression in its severity. New federal data detailing the full extent of the country’s now-historic unemployment affirmed that tension Friday morning.

For workers, the predicament is a difficult one. Many were thrown out of their jobs unexpectedly, as the coronavirus took root in the United States. Then, they were thrust into an unemployment system riddled with immense yet predictable technical glitches and bureaucratic delays that left them without aid. Now, months later, some still haven’t received their first checks — but they have been left to make uncomfortable decisions about what comes next.

Laura Perenic had just finished new-employee training at a massage spa in Clark County, Ohio, when she was laid off and told to file for unemployment. “I thought, ‘This won’t take very long!’” she recalled this week in a moment of dark humor.

But the application she filed in late March proved to be a much greater ordeal as a result of the state’s hobbled website, which left her weekly claims inexplicably listed as “pending.” Tired of waiting, Perenic, 40, soon began casting a wide net for new jobs, ultimately landing one at a grocery store in April.

“I really had no faith in the system,” she said. “I had absolutely no expectation they would do right by me.”

In Athens, Ga., Shapour Bernard said she had little choice but to leave her position at a call center in March. Even though the business had been deemed essential, allowing it to operate even as the coronavirus shuttered most everything else, Bernard said she feared for her roommate, whose immune system is suppressed by multiple sclerosis.

“Call centers are just hives of disease,” Bernard said. “One person gets a cold, and everyone gets a cold.”

Luckily, Bernard learned on Thursday that she had qualified for a new federal pandemic relief program meant for out-of-work individuals who otherwise may not be eligible for traditional unemployment benefits. But she still fretted about its limitations, fearful for what might happen to her and her roommate once the money runs out.

“It’s until the end of July,” she said. “I’m worried about that.”

Some workers’ benefits may end more abruptly: A growing roster of states has started issuing ultimatums to their residents, telling them to accept their old posts, if they’re re-offered the opportunity, or risk losing unemployment aid altogether. The threats have been most pointed in Republican-led states, where worries persist that people are trying to avoid work for as long as they can.

Alabama, for example, has publicly warned people that they could be committing fraud if they don’t return to jobs they’ve been re-offered. Oklahoma officials publicly mused about cutting benefits to force residents back to work. Iowa now has a tip line for employers to report those dodging employment. A slew of additional states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina, have articulated a wide array of similar policies in recent days.

“We’ve got to get people back working,” warned Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) at a news conference this week, threatening the termination of benefits for those who try to remain at home. “This is an issue we knew was going to be a challenge when the pandemic unemployment assistance came out.”

The states’ warnings have unnerved workers nationwide who are unsure about what to do and uncertain about their finances.

For 20 years, Demetris Hall worked as a janitor not far from Cleveland, most recently cleaning tables and windows in a local mall and food court. She was laid off in late March, like many others around the country, as cash-strapped businesses shuttered.

It took weeks of trying, and her daughter’s help, just to apply and obtain unemployment, which finally arrived later in April. Since then, Ohio has started reopening, threatening to revoke benefits for those who turn down employment. That’s left the 53-year-old in a precarious position. She’s making more now, but she knows unemployment won’t last forever. She fears for her safety, but she said she’d “rather work” anyway.

“I don’t think it’s right,” Hall said of Ohio’s recent threats. “It’s too early to go back. But if I got to go back, I got to go back.”

Bret Crow, a spokesman for Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services, said in a statement that the state is trying to strike a “delicate balance of gradually re-opening the economy while providing safe working environments.” He said that workers can report dangerous conditions to the state and that they would have an opportunity to appeal any denial of benefits.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, states required people to seek work to collect unemployment aid and deemed Americans ineligible for benefits if they turned down suitable replacement jobs. Some states have added new exceptions to their rules, promising that they won’t revoke benefits to someone who is sick with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, or a parent who must watch over a child who is out of school.

But expanding that even further to cover everyone scared to return to work proves impractical, particularly at a moment when state unemployment systems “are being stressed to a degree that’s more than ever before,” said Ann-Marie Ahern, a workers’ rights attorney in Ohio.

“The money has to come from somewhere,” she said, pointing to a bevy of other labor laws that may be better suited to help sick or disabled residents. “I’m an advocate for employees … but if you look at it, if the states were to permit benefits under these circumstances, it would be very difficult to maintain the system.”

The issue has also split federal lawmakers nearly two months after they expanded unemployment aid as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package known as the Cares Act. The law provides an extra $600 for workers each week until the end of July, as well as new aid for workers who are self-employed, a category that includes people who drive for companies in the gig economy such as Uber.

On one side are Republicans, some of whom balked at bolstering unemployment benefits in the first place. In a sign of lingering frustration, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) stressed during a fundraiser in April that the GOP is “very aware the level of unemployment compensation is actually creating a disincentive” to return to work, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private discussion. A spokesman for Crapo declined to comment.

At one point, Crapo also floated the possibility that there could be “further adjustments” to come, including a possible incentive that would “allow people to go on unemployment but keep it for a month or so after they go back to full employment,” the source said. Other Republicans, including Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas), the party’s top lawmaker on the tax-focused House Ways and Means Committee, has publicly endorsed similar ideas in recent days.

“We’re already seeing businesses struggling to bring their workers back as states reopen,” Brady said in an interview on Fox News. “If we don’t solve that problem, it will lead to an extended recession and certainly slow down our recovery.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have started sounding alarms about the need for newer, more enhanced unemployment benefits, particularly in states where the coronavirus has taken its greatest toll and left the economy in shambles. A new proposal from Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, would offer more federal jobless aid on a sliding scale, with more money set aside for workers in states where total claims are highest.

“The bottom line is clear,” Wyden told reporters Thursday. “The pandemic is getting worse.”

Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

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