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'I’m Scared': U.S. Workers in Reopening States Face an Impossible Choice

By reopening their states early, GOP governors are forcing workers to choose between their health and financial security. “I feel like we’re all just this test market," said one restaurant server in Georgia.
April 30, 2020, 2:06pm

On the same day Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced this month that he had decided to reopen the state, a local hair stylist named Rachel received a text from her boss.

Before the pandemic hit her home state, Rachel had been working at two salons, and one of them wanted her to know that they would be opening in a matter of days. The news made Rachel nervous. Kemp had decided to open the state against the warnings of infectious disease experts. And now, her boss was only giving her a day to decide what she wanted to do.

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Rachel, who declined to provide her last name to VICE, tried to discuss with her boss ways that they could come into work safely, but felt that she wasn’t open to her concerns, even when it came to something as simple as moving from being a cash business to an electronic one. “She was like, ‘We’ll do things as we always have’,” Rachel said.

When Rachel asked to come back to work at a later date, her boss let her go instead. Now, she’s worried that she might lose her unemployment benefits as well. States have made it clear that if people refuse suitable employment, they will likely lose their unemployment benefits.

But Rachel said she was more concerned about the safety of the elderly family members and toddler that she lives with. “Something could go wrong and then you bring [the virus] home to your family and your family is all sick and it’s your fault,” Rachel said.

Even as public health officials warn that it’s still too soon to reopen businesses, the message from Republican governors across the country is clear—slashing their budgets and dubious attempts to reshore the economy amidst a pandemic is more of a concern than their constituents’ lives and safety. “We cannot continue this way economically,” Kemp declared on Monday after opening up his state’s restaurants, tattoo parlors, gyms, and salons. “The price has been steep,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said when he announced he was planning to begin reopening the state’s business. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt emphasized that he had to “mitigate the loss to our economy and get our workers back working as quickly as possible.”

The governors’ decision means that people in these states are now facing a choice that is not a choice at all: Either risk their health to come back to work at businesses that might not even have customers, or lose their jobs and get pushed off of their unemployment benefits.

“Something could go wrong and then you bring [the virus] home to your family and your family is all sick and it’s your fault,” Rachel said.

“Do I just go to work to keep my job knowing I won’t make any money and won’t get unemployment?” Saneka Smith, a server whose restaurant is reopening in Georgia next week, told VICE. “Or do I not go back to work for my safety and then I don’t have any type of income?”

Smith says she can’t imagine being able to stay six feet away from her co-workers and restaurant patrons. She hasn’t decided yet what she’ll do, but feels pressured to return given that she’s depending completely on her unemployment benefits right now.

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Saneka Smith (left) Candace Hughes (middle) Courtney Hunt (right) live in states that are reopening. They all think it's too soon to go back to work. (Photos courtesy of Smith, Hughes, and Hunt)

Much of the coverage around reopening has focused on restarting the economy and protestors pressuring governors for “freedom” from lockdown measures. But Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, said that’s not the only reason lawmakers are keen to send people back to work. “A lot of this is about reducing unemployment insurance rolls,” Evermore said. Oklahoma workforce leaders even considered asking the federal government to end the extra $600 in unemployment insurance early, given that it might have a “disincentive effect.”

“The question is, is any job, like a restaurant job, suitable right now?” Evermore said. “The working conditions there are much [worse] than when the person lost the job. It’s now very unsafe.”

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Over the past few months, more than 50,000 people in the U.S. have died from coronavirus. The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, advised that the country should double the amount of testing before businesses begin reopening, stating that there was “no doubt” the U.S. would see new coronavirus cases as states reopen. Despite recent protests in states like Michigan, a large majority of the American public supports sheltering in place. One recent poll showed 80 percent of people agreeing that such measures are necessary to restrict the virus.

Do you have a coronavirus story you want to tell? Fill out this form or reach out on Signal at (310) 614-3752 and VICE will be in touch.

States have instructed businesses that are opening up to reduce capacity and implement social distancing guidelines. But many workers told VICE that they feel like their workplaces—salons, restaurants, tattoo parlors—won’t be able to adhere to them.

Candace Hughes, a hair stylist in Dallas, told VICE that she thinks that it’s still too soon to return to work. In Texas, hair salons are part of phase two of the governor’s reopening plan, which could commence as soon as May 18.

“The question is, is any job, like a restaurant job, suitable right now?” Evermore said. “The working conditions there are much [worse] than when the person lost the job. It’s now very unsafe.”

“There is no way that we can work within six feet of our clients and still practice social distancing. A lot of the times we’re breathing on each other,” Hughes said. She’s getting pandemic unemployment insurance right now, but is scared that she’ll lose it if she turns down work when her salon reopens. Hughes has to support her daughter, but she’s also concerned about exposing herself by going back to work because her daughter has asthma.

Courtney Hunt works as a receptionist for a veterinarian office in Oklahoma. Because Hunt sat in close proximity with her coworker and not everyone at her office was wearing masks, she felt she had no choice but to stop working soon after the pandemic began. “I basically stood up and said, I am not comfortable with this,” Hunt told VICE.

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Hunt, who is the 43-year-old mother of a son with asthma, said she would revisit the situation when the stay-at-home order was lifted, and was allowed to go on unemployment. But now, with Oklahoma already reopening businesses, those benefits are at risk and she feels trapped.

“It’s a hard position to be in,” Hunt said. “If [my boss] offers me my job back and says come back on May 1st, I don’t feel like I can look at her and say ‘I don’t want to come back, I’m scared.’”

In many of these states, such decisions are falling to low-wage, minority workers. Bloomberg’s CityLab pointed out that 19 percent of black workers in Georgia are employed in the service industry, a sector that has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Black and Hispanic workers are less likely to have jobs where they can work from home and black people are dying at disproportionate rates from coronavirus.

Republican governors’ decision to re-open their states and push people off of unemployment is part of a long history of states denying minority, low-income workers benefits. Many of the states that are reopening early are already among the worst when it comes to unemployment insurance recipiency rates.

In the wake of the last recession, which also saw expanded unemployment benefits, an Urban Institute study found that black workers had a disproportionately high unemployment rate of 11 percent, compared to 7 percent of white workers in 2010. But they also had the lowest unemployment insurance recipiency rate, with less than 24 percent of unemployed black workers receiving benefits, compared to 33 percent of white workers.

“It’s a hard position to be in,” Hunt said.“If [my boss] offers me my job back and says Come back on May 1st, I don’t feel like I can look at her and say ‘I don’t want to come back, I’m scared.’”

“When you look at states that have gutted their unemployment insurance system and really reduced benefits, they’re states with a high number of workers of color,” Evermore said. “Communities of color are going to suffer for a very long time from this.”

Governors like Kemp have framed their states’ reopenings as an “opportunity,” not a “mandate.” But many workers VICE spoke to feel like they’re being strong-armed into going back to work. With backed-up unemployment lines and delayed stimulus checks, some people have to return to their jobs before they think it’s safe simply because they need money to survive.

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“We’re put to the question of either starve to death and lose our homes, or go make money and put ourselves in a risky situation,” Jason Goodnight, a 33-year-old tattoo artist in Georgia, told VICE. Goodnight applied for pandemic unemployment insurance as an independent contractor, but hasn’t received anything yet. He’s planning to return to his tattoo parlor this week, even though he thinks it’s too soon.

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Restaurant server Blythe Nichols (left) and tattoo artist Jason Goodnight (right). (Photos courtesy of Nichols and Goodnight)

An analysis from the Economic Policy Institute found that for every ten people who successfully applied for unemployment in the last month, three to four tried but couldn’t get through and two did not even try because it was too difficult to do so. Almost two months after the pandemic began, some have yet to see any relief from the government. That gives workers who might want to stay safe less financial wiggle room to do so.

“Even if we wanted to play it safe and stay at home because that’s the right thing to do right now, we’re going to lose that home and end up sleeping under a bridge,” Goodnight said. He noted that it’s been difficult for tattoo artists to find the protective gear they need as they resume working.

If workers do risk returning to their jobs, they also have to contend with the fact that they probably won’t be making as much money as they did before the pandemic started. Smith, the restaurant server, is weighing the fact that even if she goes in, she won’t make as much if demand is slow. “I don’t feel a lot of people are going to be wanting to eat out,” she said.

“We’re put to the question of either starve to death and lose our homes, or go make money and put ourselves in a risky situation,” Jason Goodnight, a 33-year-old tattoo artist in Georgia, told VICE.

“A lot of clients I’ve gotten in touch with about coming back relatively soon are a bit hesitant,” Goodnight said. But with his savings drained and rent due, he needs any money he can get. When asked about what he thought about Kent reopening the state, Goodnight said, “It comes off as a ploy to avoid paying us.”

It’s not that employees don’t understand the challenges some of their employers are facing. Blythe Nichols, 41, was able to receive unemployment after she lost her job waiting tables at a small restaurant outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Her boss, however, didn’t receive substantial government aid in any form and is now stressed about the financial health of the business.

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“He feels a real pressure being a small business to open up right away,” Nichols said. “So he’s kind of said that we have to suck it up and go back.”

Nichols feels a loyalty to her employer, but she’s scared to go back. She has a 74-year-old mother, and she questions the judgement of any patron who would enter the restaurant, let alone the decision by her governor to open the state of Georgia back up already.

“I feel like we’re all just this test market on this. Like we’re just being thrown to the wolves,” she said.

But when VICE asked her if she would ultimately return to her job, Nichols didn’t have to think too hard about her answer. After all, she said, “I don’t think we have a choice.”

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