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After rising concerns over the novel coronavirus began to make them feel concerned for their health and safety, Andrea Simpson-Troy, (they/them), whose name has been changed to protect their identity, communicated this to their boss at Parsons Electric saying that, “I am immunocompromised, I don’t feel comfortable coming into the office.” Going to work around people with their own families and who may or may not have been taking the pandemic seriously, felt unsafe. Their boss was supportive at first saying, “I want you to feel safe where you are working…I am happy to check in in two weeks.” More people started working remotely, as many have children or are single parents.
Then things suddenly changed. Earlier this week Simpson-Troy was called into work for a department meeting. Since they had already been working remotely and had previously informed their manager that they are immunocompromised they were surprised that after asking if they could just call in for the meeting, their boss said no. To make matters worse, Simpson-Troy’s roommate also has autoimmune and respiratory issues, so they said that coming into the office and potentially bringing back a lethal contagion was, “not a decision I made lightly.”
Simpson-Troy is so concerned about contracting and spreading the virus that they have a decontamination regimen if they go outside and come back home. Coming into work during a pandemic seemed like a highly unnecessary risk to their health and the health of their roommate. Over email, Simpson-Troy pleaded with their company saying, “I don’t feel safe going into the office” but their boss insisted, saying, “It would be great if you came in.”
Simpson-Troy knew that since raises were suspended it was likely that layoffs would come next. They worried that if they didn’t go in they would be fired instead and therefore not eligible for unemployment insurance. Simpson-Troy agonized over the decision, crying for hours and they said that they “freaked out about it a lot.” Like so many others in the pandemic economy, it was a decision between an uncertain economic future and potential exposure to a highly contagious, lethal virus.
Simpson-Troy chose to go in.
Clad in their own protective gear, Simpson-Troy nervously went into the office where they were surprised by the casualness of staff. Two of their colleagues, someone from HR, and their boss were all seated around a small conference table, barely two feet away from each other in a confined space without any protective measures or any semblance of an “abundance of caution.”
Soon it was clear that all three workers were being laid off as HR handed them files and envelopes. Simpson-Troy was silent, crying and emotionally unable to communicate until finally exclaiming, “You physically made us come in here for this.”
The HR person explained that they wanted to show their heartfelt concern in person and that they were sorry about the layoffs. Simpson-Troy responded, “You are risking our lives so you can feel that way.” Simpson-Troy had to explain that, “their emotions (feeling bad about layoffs and showing they care) are not more important than my life.”
Another one of those coworkers had worked with the company for at least a decade and got laid off with no payout for accrued vacation days. Simpson-Troy has a friend who also works for Parsons that was laid off over the phone instead of being told to go in.
Simpson-Troy had been there for a year working 35 or 37.5 hours a week. They didn’t want a full-time schedule in order to have the time to work through treatments for their autoimmune issues. Now, they will also lose their health insurance.
The whole experience has left Simpson-Troy feeling disposable. “I am expensive but not valuable. They didn’t have respect for my life to call or email.”
Simpson-Troy wants to let employers know that, “if you are going to lay someone off, especially if they are immunocompromised, please call them or email them.” A layoff also means the imminent loss of private health insurance which is Simpson-Troy’s most pressing concern, “If I contracted the virus from the unsafe conditions in that meeting and become critically ill, now I don’t even have health insurance to help pay for those hospital bills, if I survive.”
Simpson-Troy has a friend that works for a competitor, Hunt Electric Corporation, that is requiring everyone who can to work from home. When they have meetings they keep them online.
Parsons Electric did not reply to an attempt for comment.
Fast-food workers, while not recognized as such, have become critical front line workers and are also feeling the strains of working during a pandemic. The restaurant industry has decreased staffing capacity dramatically, leading to long lines at the drive-in lane as the quarantined venture out to enjoy comfort food. Sanethea Barnes was a Dairy Queen worker in Crystal until Wednesday last week when she was abruptly fired. She was told that she was fired for not paying for a double cheeseburger and chicken strips on her day off and that another employee had reported the incident to management.
Barnes was upset because what happened is a common practice at their Dairy Queen and some rules seemed arbitrary and designed to offer preferential treatment. Barnes was also confused since the day before on the 17th she had a very positive survey from a customer. Her pay increase to $12.50 an hour was delayed from March till the end of April all while business has been booming. The low pay and arbitrary working conditions were not the only reason Barnes felt disposable after she was fired.
Since COVID-19 has taken a serious turn locally, Dairy Queen has had no conversations with front line employees about protective measures. Barnes only overheard managers talking about how to protect themselves. If Barnes were to get sick on the job she would not be protected by the recently passed Sick and Safe Time ordinances passed in Minneapolis and St Paul because there is no statute in Crystal.
Organizations all over the Twin Cities that advocate for the rights of low wage workers have been monitoring the deteriorating working conditions that many face because of the challenges related to COVID-19. Together these organizations have developed the Minnesota COVID-19 Response Policy Platform. They are demanding that workers like Sanethea Barnes and Andrea Simpson-Troy receive the following:
Hazard Pay for Front-Line Workers
Now more than ever, the people who do the critical work of cleaning our buildings, taking care of the sick and elderly, providing grocery services, and other essential services need to have the value of their contributions properly compensated. Front-line workers should receive hazard pay if they choose to continue working.
Safety for Front-Line Workers
Front-line workers (including healthcare, janitors, maintenance, food service, and other essential services) must be kept as safe as possible from the virus while preventing spread. These workers must be provided proper protective equipment, and language appropriate training. Additionally, healthcare workers who are or who care for a family member who is more vulnerable to coronavirus because they are pregnant or have suppressed immune systems, should not be required to care for patients with respiratory illnesses.
Social Distancing Wages
With school closures and the community transmission of COVID-19, workers need the ability to apply the important practice of social distancing by staying home when they are sick or to care for a family member who is sick or lacks care. All workers, including public employees, subcontracted workers, and consumer-directed home care workers, who need to stay home from work for any reason connected to COVID-19, including the closure of their workplace, need full wage replacement and continuation of benefits that goes beyond their current paid-time off benefits and that does not accumulate points under an attendance policy. This social distancing wage must extend for no less than three weeks for private employees, and for the duration of this pandemic for public employees, including local government and school employees.
Emergency Unemployment Benefits
People are being laid off now and need emergency support to be able to eat and pay for basic needs. All workers, including undocumented workers, consumer-directed home care workers, event workers, and workers with more than one job, who are laid-off or have their hours significantly reduced should be able to access expanded unemployment insurance benefits immediately and retroactively, without counting the benefit against the employer’s experience rating, and with a moratorium on employer challenges during the pandemic, including increased and extended benefits.