US Despite coronavirus, millions of workers can't stay home. Are they safe?

01:25  26 march  2020
01:25  26 march  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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Even as millions work from home because of coronavirus , many employees must go to work even if their duties can be done remotely. Whatever the job, there is one thing many of those workers have in common— they don' t feel safe , and they are clashing with employers as they demand more

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Matt Dustin had a wrenching decision to make: Take an unpaid leave from his job or keep working at the shipbuilding company where he feared catching the coronavirus and bringing it home to his vulnerable wife.

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Dustin decided to forgo his pay.

“There is no social distancing there at all,’’ says Dustin, who is taking a leave of absence from his job in Bath, Maine, because his wife has a heart condition and asthma, putting her at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. “If they put you to work, you’re working right on top of each other."

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His union has asked that non-essential employees be allowed to stay home and get paid. But so far the company hasn't budged. So Dustin says he will be at home, dipping into his savings if he must to make ends meet. 

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At a time when tens of millions of Americans have been told to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, millions of others have no choice but to show up to work. Some say they are being forced to, though their office and clerical duties could be done remotely. Others, who deliver packages, clean buildings and work on assembly lines, can't fulfill their roles offsite.

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Whatever the job, there is one thing many of those workers have in common – they don't feel safe, and they are clashing with employers as they demand more protections.

They worry about sitting in crowded offices where they fear the virus could quickly spread. They say they are ill-equipped for the risk they take interacting with the public and their fellow workers. They are anxious about working in plants and warehouses that they don't believe are being sufficiently cleaned.

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“Those who work in essential positions are no doubt feeling heightening anxiety as the outbreak continues,'' says Andrew Challenger, vice president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. "It is imperative for employers of these workers to provide some basic measures of protection, including soap and water, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes, and telling sick workers to stay home.” 

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The coronavirus is changing how we live our daily lives. Taking a look at how the global pandemic has affected various aspects of life in the United States reveals the She used the announcement to urge young people to stay at home , even if they don’ t feel sick, to protect those who are more vulnerable.

Key workers or those with children identified as vulnerable can continue to take their children to school. Hotels, hostels, campsites and caravan parks must also close unless key workers need to stay there, or if other people staying there " Coronavirus is the biggest challenge of our lifetime."

Workers, union leaders and activists are calling for more safeguards against the virus, which has led to the deaths of more than 800 people and over 60,000 cases of infection in the U.S. as of Wednesday afternoon. 

Roughly 50 employees at a Perdue Farm plant near Perry, Georgia, walked off the job Monday, saying they didn't feel the chicken producer was doing enough to properly clean the facility and keep them safe from the coronavirus, according to WMAZ in central Georgia. 

Clerks at a court in suburban Chicago walked out last Friday because they didn't feel they or courthouse visitors were being adequately protected from COVID-19, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. 

At the Bath Iron Works, which manufactures guided-missile destroyers for the Navy, 59% of workers did not show up for work as they call for paid leave, union representatives say.

And Amazon workers and activists who monitor the company have made a series of demands, including requests that sanitizing supplies be more uniformly distributed and paid-leave policies extended to all workers if their facilities are closed because of the virus or they need to care for sick family members. 

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Boris Johnson tonight told everyone in the UK they 'must stay at home ' to slow the spread of coronavirus as the Prime Minister set out just four instances Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor? Key workers can continue to stay in hotels or similar where required.

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Businesses offer bonuses and extra pay

Some companies are changing policies, bolstering pay and handing out bonuses to accommodate employees who must show up onsite to do their jobs. 

"Companies are changing shifts so that fewer people are working together,'' Challenger says. "Some companies are offering higher pay to their teams who have to go to work during the outbreak.”

WeWork, the shared workspaces company, is offering a $100-a-day bonus to certain employees willing to come in and keep its offices running in the U.S. and Canada.

The company, whose members are primarily freelancers and small businesses,  operates in states like New York and New Jersey that mandate all nonessential businesses close. But in a statement to USA TODAY, WeWork CEO Marcelo Claure and Chairman Sandeep Mathrani called the company "a service provider" with an obligation to keep the buildings open.

"Where we believe we can operate our buildings safely, and in accordance with government policies, we will keep those buildings open," the statement said. 

WeWork says that its employees are able to work from home for full pay, and coming into the office is voluntary.

Charter employees ask why can't they stay home?

But even if a business is deemed essential, some say that not every one of its workers should have to be onsite.  

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Employees at Charter Communications have expressed frustration about the company's unwillingness to let them work from home while other major telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Verizon have such policies.

Nick Wheeler, a systems engineer, emailed his bosses asking why. 

“We’re all in these offices and elevators all day,'' Wheeler says. "It makes sense, if most of those people can do their jobs from home, that will help lessen the spread of the virus. That was my main concern and my main reason for wanting to work from home.’’

But his managers said the email incited fear. Wheeler said he would quit, an offer his manager initially rejected, then accepted soon after.

Since then, however, Charter has reversed course, saying it will let some people work from home.

The Stamford, Connecticut-headquartered Charter, the No. 2 broadband and pay-TV provider in the U.S., operates in an industry considered essential by local, state and federal guidelines.

"We are working around the clock to deliver uninterrupted internet, telephone and TV news services,'' the company said in a statement to USA TODAY. 

Last week, Charter announced work-at-home options, increased social distancing in call centers and operations facilities, and an additional three weeks paid leave for all employees. It has also begun deploying workers in its customer call care centers to work from home, but says the process is slowed because workers with access to customer data must be in a secure location. 

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"We will provide the option for remote work to employees whose jobs allow them to work outside the office without endangering our obligation to provide critical services," its statement said.

A need for masks, gloves and other protections

In the midst of the current health and economic crisis, workers who pack boxes, staff store registers and tote supplies are proving as essential to steering the country through the pandemic as first responders and medical personnel.

"I think that for a long time in our society we have treated the work of people who do this kind of work as less important ... less valuable,'' says Dania Rajendra, director of Athena, a coalition of groups that represent Amazon workers and others concerned about the company's influence. "This is a moment where, as a society, we are taking stock of who we are and who we want to be.’’

Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos said in a blog post last week that his company has put in purchase orders for millions of masks for its workers and contractors. And Kroger has told its employees that they are allowed to wear such protective gear, adding that government officials should give supermarket workers priority for such supplies.

"Our associates are on the front lines, ensuring Americans have access to the food, services and products they need during this unprecedented pandemic,'' the grocery chain said in a statement Tuesday. 

Kroger and Walmart are installing plexiglass barriers at many cash registers to enable the social distancing recommended by health experts. And they are putting decals on store floors to help customers figure out the right space to put between themselves and others.

Gallery by photo services 

Are certain workers more likely to get COVID-19?  

But some workers whose jobs require to them be onsite say safety measures need to go further.  

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that coronavirus could be detected up to four hours on copper surfaces, up to 24 hours on cardboard and as long as three days on plastic and stainless steel.

Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious diseases specialist at the Stanford School of Medicine, could not say if certain occupations might be at greater risk from the virus, noting that much is still unknown.

“We might find that out later, that there’s more risk in certain places,’’ Maldonado says. “But I think more likely it’s about the same two factors. It’s about distancing from each other and using the proper equipment to protect yourself. And that would hold true for any occupation ... The risk factors are being close to people because you don’t know which person might be sick.’’

For some workers, urgency is mounting as more of their colleagues become ill. 

Machinists at Boeing plants in Washington grew anxious last week when the union acknowledged reports that requests to take excused leave without pay were being turned down amid a Seattle Times report that 14 employees in the Puget Sound region tested positive for the virus.

And an Amazon fulfillment center in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, was closed Tuesday "for additional sanitization'' after an unspecified number of employees tested positive for COVID-19. A delivery center in Queens, New York, also briefly closed last week after an employee was diagnosed with the virus. 

Monica Moody, an Amazon employee who works in a warehouse in Concord, North Carolina, says she used gloves and glasses for her job before the coronavirus emerged. But she says workers need new equipment that provides better protection from COVID-19.

“I pack the packages that go into your home and  ... I'm scared for my own safety,'' Moody said during a call Tuesday coordinated by United for Respect, a nonprofit labor group advocating for hourly retail workers, and the Paid Leave for All campaign which is calling for universal paid leave.  "We  ... barely have time to wash our hands when we get to work or during our shifts.''

Amazon chief Jeff Bezos said in his blog post that the company has taken a number of steps to protect workers' health, "from increasing the frequency and intensity of cleaning'' to implementing social distancing in its fulfillment centers.

And "when our turn for masks comes, our first priority will be getting them in the hands of our employees and partners working to get essential products to people."

But the company can do more right now, says Rajendra, for workers in its warehouses as well as its drivers.  

Delivery drivers, who are "under enormous pressure to deliver packages at extremely high rates,'' also need more supplies, she says, such as  "the hand sanitizer or the wipes that they should have to keep their vehicle.'' 

Requests to stay at home can put jobs on the line

Some workers say they are being made to choose between protecting their health and a paycheck.

Katherine Webster, a project engineer whose firm was contracted to build the interior of a local hotel in Tallahassee, Florida, says when she asked to work from home, she was fired instead.

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Webster, who has an autoimmune illness and a 9-year-old son with diabetes and asthma, told the Tallahassee Democrat she could have done her job via computer and phone. But after her request,  the company’s owner asked her for her laptop and says he would contact her about future job opportunities. 

Workers are seeing results

Other workers who are seeking protections are getting results. 

Mary Kay Henry, the international president of the Service Employees International Union, says that as the coronavirus outbreak spread, janitorial employees were suddenly asked to use hospital detergents and disinfectants without being provided gloves or masks.

“Many of them broke out in rashes because it’s such strong equipment,’’ says Henry, whose union represents 175,000 janitorial employees who clean buildings in 22 cities.

But the SEIU was able to secure paid sick leave and more protective equipment for those workers.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Reindel, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, says talks are underway to address whether union members who work for utility and communications companies should travel two to a truck as they typically have in the past.

Concerns about the virus could lead to a “one person, one truck’’ policy, she says of workers who help ensure gas, power and electricity are available.

But for workers across industries, there's a lot to be considered.

“There’s this rush to get people back to work,'' she says, "without really knowing what they could be spreading.’’  

Contributing:  Billy Kobin,  Louisville Courier Journal; Matthew Prensky, Salisbury Daily Times; N'Dea Yancey-Bragg and Mike Snider, USA TODAY; Nada Hassanein,  Tallahassee Democrat  

Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones and Josh Peter @joshlpeter11

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Despite coronavirus, millions of workers can't stay home. Are they safe?

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