Employees, Pick Your Poison: Your Livelihood or Your Lives

Employees, Pick Your Poison: Lose Your Livelihood Or Lose Your Lives
Republicans make clear: Employees can’t refuse to show up and still draw unemployment benefits—even if showing up to work means putting your health and life at risk. Pictured: A pizza shop in NYC on April 22. (spurekar / Flickr)

What might be termed the “health vs. wealth” controversy over whether to re-open state economies during the coronavirus crisis has low-income women in a bigger bind than most.  

Highlighting a “pick your poison” choice, Deidra Young—a laid-off bartender in Nevada, where the stay-at-home order expires April 30—personifies the problem: She’d like to go back to work, but has to weigh the risk of standing in a half-empty bar to bring home the measly $8.50 an hour minimum wage.

“If my work does call me, I honestly want to say no,” she told the New York Times. “We all want to go back to work, but we don’t want to get sick … will I [lose] unemployment if I refuse?”

Unfortunately, the answer for Young: YES.

According to the federal unemployment guidelines, to draw unemployment, “You must be able, available and looking for work.” That means if your workplace is open, you can’t refuse to show up and still draw unemployment benefits—even if showing up to work means putting your health and life at risk. 

Although Congress passed The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March to expand unemployment insurance to those out of work, the law means just what it says: “out of work.” There’s no provision for those afraid to report to their job if it’s available—even in workplaces where COVID-19 is rampant.

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Despite Gruesome Data, Meat Plants Stay Open

The latest blow for workers? On Tuesday, President Trump used the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure to keep meat plants in production.

Note that Trump has yet to use the Defense Production Act to force higher production of the PPE (personal protective equipment) or ventilators so desperately needed by beleaguered health care workers and hospitals. Yet, he has issued an executive order that forces meat packers to stay open, despite being hotbeds of coronavirus.

That means up to 500,000 more workers—increasingly female and immigrant—will have to choose between their losing their livelihoods and possibly losing their lives. A New York magazine headline put it this way: “Trump Is Ready to Let Tyson Foods Work People to Death.”

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds (R) underscored the point, saying, “If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit. Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

And it’s not just Tyson that will remain open, putting workers at great risk: Wayne Farms, a chicken plant in Alabama, refuses to close—even though it accounts for more than a quarter of the virus cases in its county, with 75 infections and one death this week alone.

Moreover, according to reporting by NBC, meatpacking plants are being told that the CDC-issued guidelines to increase worker safety and prevent transmission of coronavirus infections among workers in meatpacking plants, are considered “voluntary.” 

Is having meat on the table at every meal really worth it? Hard to believe the majority of Americans would think so.

“Profits Over People” Puts Workers at Risk

By opening economies and businesses too soon, several women-dominated jobs will be exposed to the greatest risk. The bar where Young works is just one example: Women constitute more than half the beverage service workforce nationwide.

shutdown re open employees unemployment coronavirus Employees, Pick Your Poison: Lose Your Livelihood Or Lose Your Lives
Contradictory local plans to reopen are creating a patchwork of restrictions across the country. Pictured: Liberate Minnesota protest in St Paul, Minnesota. (Lorie Shaull)

It’s no surprise that this bind is greatest for women of color, who are disproportionately represented in industries with the highest unemployment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They make up almost a third of social assistance workers, and nearly a quarter of hospitality and food service workers—many of whom have been recently called back to work.

Nail salons are also now on the list of businesses allowed to open, although the virus is far from contained. Nail salon workers are 80 percent female, three-quarters of Asian descent, generally with no more than a high-school education. They’re also disproportionately likely to lack health care coverage, despite daily toxic exposures on the job.  The close work quarters they’re forced to return to pose a particular danger.

Congress’s Battle for State Funding

In a time when it’s reasonable to expect government to protect its citizens, the opposite seems to be happening in Washington. 

House Democrats are preparing legislation for when they return to Capitol Hill, but pushed back their original May 4 return because they aren’t anywhere close to agreeing on a final bill with Republicans and the Trump administration. Party leaders are emphasizing aid to struggling state governments—so that states they don’t have to slash funds for public services, like police, emergency departments, public school teachers and other public workers.

But Republicans are resisting, asking for restrictions on some of the money. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is demanding liability protections for businesses in the next package, which Democrats vehemently oppose.

In other words, as businesses are re-opening—like the meatpacking plants—knowing they are putting employees’ health and lives at risk, Republicans are seeking to prohibit lawsuits against a company by employees or customers who fall ill or die.

McConnell’s recent comment that he would favor allowing states to go bankrupt—which is actually illegal under federal law—rather than give them more money, drew backlash even from some Republican governors.

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-movingDuring this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


Martha Burk is money editor at Ms.