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Employees In Some Industries Face Risking COVID-19 Or Losing Their Jobs And Benefits

Joshua Williams, paints in his home art studio in Kansas City, Missouri. He’s worked as a janitor and, after two months of being furloughed, he is worried about being called back to work.
Julie Denesha
Joshua Williams paints in his home art studio in Kansas City, Missouri. He’s worked as a janitor and, after weeks of being furloughed, he is worried about being called back to work.

Furloughed workers can lose unemployment benefits if they are called back, even if they are at high risk for severe illness.

Cities throughout the Kansas City metro have entered into various stages of reopening, and that's welcome news for many people who are anxious about the economy. But many workers say they are being forced into situations they fear are not yet safe.

When Joshua Williams, 28, was told on May 5 that he would be expected back at work in the downtown Kansas City, Missouri, office building where he's a janitor, the reopening was earlier than he was comfortable with.

“It seems like we’re a pawn,” Williams says. “It seems like we’re just moving on someone else’s terms, and we’ve gotta take the fall however the fall comes.”

Williams, who returned to work on May 11, says he’s concerned about contracting the coronavirus and potentially transmitting it to his community and his home, where he lives with his wife and two children, a son who’s 8, and a daughter who’s 3.

He has been collecting unemployment benefits since he was furloughed on March 25, and under federal and state law, such benefits end when an employer calls employees back to work.

Employees can continue to collect unemployment benefits under some COVID-19 related circumstances, such as if the worker or a member of their household is sick, or if childcare or transportation are unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.

However, the law makes no exceptions for people who are at higher risk of developing severe illness due to age or other health conditions or for people who may be concerned about contracting the virus.

Many large Kansas City-area employers, including Burns & McDonnell and the University of Missouri–Kansas City, won’t start bringing significant numbers of employees back until June, and some have indicated that they will take extra precautions and consider employees’ needs on a case-by-case basis.

Williams says his employer, however, seemed to have little sympathy for his concerns.

“It was brought on to me like I didn’t have a choice,” Williams says. “And then I said that, and it was told to me, like, I didn’t have a choice.”

At the same time Williams was getting back to his job, Kansas City leaders were also voicing concerns about the safety of people returning to work and patronizing businesses.

Days before the reopening on May 15, Mayor Quinton Lucas acknowledged that the move was a compromise between health and other interests.

“If I had my real druthers and lived in a world that was just about Quinton Lucas, rather than everybody else, we probably wouldn’t be here today even talking about reopening,” Lucas said.

As many workers like Williams return to work in the coming weeks, they will join the “essential” workers who have continued to work while stay-at-home orders have been in place.

Much of the data on COVID-19 infections in the U.S. suggest that lower income and black and Hispanic communities have been hit hardest, and this may be related to increased exposure risks for those who have continued to work.

“It is likely that those individuals who are lower income are also more on the front line, if you will, in positions that require them to be at work and to be interacting with the public,” says Wizdom Powell, director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health, which is part of the University of Connecticut.

Essential workers employed in health care, transportation and law enforcement in New York have had rates of infection lower than the general public, but this may be due to personal protective equipment and other precautions.

Other essential workers, such those who work in grocery stores, delivery, construction or manufacturing, may not have the same protections.

State and local leaders have not chosen to require masks in public or workplaces in Missouri and Kansas City.

However, these workers still must interact with other people and potentially face more exposure to the coronavirus than people who have been able to work from home.

“There is something to be said for the protective effect of simply staying at home, which many essential workers don’t have the privilege to do,” Powell says.

Mirroring patterns seen in other cities including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C., the infection rates in Kansas City have been highest in zip codes that are generally lower income, with high percentages of nonwhite residents.

Nonwhite COVID-19 patients account for more than 70% of COVID-19 cases in Kansas City, Missouri, though they are roughly 40% of the city’s population.

Most of Kansas City’s COVID-19 cases have been clustered in many of the city’s lowest income zip codes.

Lower income and black communities also generally have higher percentages of people who are at-risk of severe illness due to COVID-19 compared to the general public.

A Washington Post-Ipso poll conducted in late April and early May found that 58% of Americans were concerned about contracting COVID-19 at work and transmitting the virus to members of their households.

However, 72% of Hispanic, 68% of black and 64% of women respondents said they felt concerned.

Guidelines from the White House and many other health organizations recommend that communities wait on reopening until they see a downward trend in case for 14 days.

However, the Kansas City, Missouri, health department reported its highest number of cases 10 days before the reopening on Friday, May 15.

Many of the new cases initially appeared related to surveillance testing at a meat packing plant in St. Joseph, which started at the beginning of the month. However, the health department has continued to report case numbers higher than were reported during most of April.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and many advocates for reopening businesses sooner rather than later have pointed to the economic hardship brought about by suspended operations and individuals losing jobs.

More than 560,000 initial unemployment claims were filed in Missouri between the third week of March and last week.

Weekly unemployment benefits in Missouri have averaged $873 a week, which includes a federal supplement of $600.

Joshua Williams, paints in his home art studio in Kansas City, Missouri. He’s worked as a janitor and, after two months of being furloughed, he is worried about being called back to work.
Julie Denesha
Joshua Williams says he's been developing his professional career as a painter and spending time with his family while he's been furloughed.

Williams says that he was initially cynical about stay-at-home orders and schools ending in-person classes.

But he says his time away from work allowed him to develop his portrait painting business, and he says he enjoyed being closer to his wife and children.

“The more and more I got to spend time around my family,” Williams says, “It made be so appreciative of what I’ve built.”

Williams’ return to work, however, has brought unwelcome surprises.

He was provided with a mask, but other people in his building haven't been wearing them.

Signs posed in the building where Williams works advise wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, but he says he has often seen the rules ignored.

“That makes not just me uncomfortable but also other uncomfortable,” Williams says. “And more people coming in? That worries me even more.”

His work dilemma prompted him to be more involved in the Service Employees International Union Local 1, which is advocating for higher wages, more protective equipment and greater job security for service workers.

Williams says that during the pandemic, supervisors have expressed appreciation for his efforts, but the conditions that he’s been required to work under have made those words seem empty.

“I hear people say, ‘Good job, y’all doing good,’” Williams says. “But the way I feel — you know it doesn’t feel like that.”

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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