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As States Reopen, Returning Workers Wonder How Employers Will Protect Them


As businesses open around the country, thousands of workers have filed complaints with the federal government saying their employers aren't doing enough to protect them from the coronavirus. We wanted to take a look at what your options and your rights are if you show up to work and just don't feel safe.

We're joined now by NPR correspondent Chris Arnold. Chris, thanks so much for being with us.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Absolutely. Hi, Scott.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, there's been a surge in new cases in Florida, Texas, Arizona and, in response to that, new moves to protect workers and the general public. Tell us what's happening.

ARNOLD: Right. We should say that, you know, these are states - a lot of them - that had some of the loosest restrictions, I mean, where we saw images of nightclubs and beaches where people are partying and there's no masks. And it's like, what coronavirus, you know?

Now, with cases spiking, in Texas, the governor yesterday ordered bars to close except for takeout. And restaurants have been reduced now to 50% capacity in Florida, which smashed its previous record for coronavirus cases this past week. The state has now also banned the consumption of alcohol at bars. And so all of that is an implicit acknowledgment that this was just not a safe situation.

SIMON: And I know you've been talking to workers as things have reopened. What do you hear from workers?

ARNOLD: I talked yesterday to Alexandra (ph), who works in a restaurant in Austin, Texas. She just wants to use her first name because she doesn't want to get in trouble with her employer. And a number of things have not seemed safe to her. She said, for one thing, that there's a checklist every hour. They're supposed to sanitize doorknobs and handrails and clean other high-touch surfaces. And every time you do that, you've got to check a box. But when it gets busy, she says they just can't keep up with that cleaning.

ALEXANDRA: One time, a newer manager asked all of us, actually, just make sure the paper gets filled out whether you do it or not. And I didn't really think that was cool. But, you know, I mean, I try to keep up with it as much as I can.

ARNOLD: And she says about a week ago, she got an email from the restaurant that a co-worker just got sick with COVID symptoms. And she says even before the test results were in, they put her back on the schedule to go back to work.

ALEXANDRA: They did not tell us to stay home. And that felt really confusing and almost like the sense like I'm the crazy one because I feel like I am taking it more seriously than the restaurant is.

ARNOLD: And she says that makes her feel pretty unsafe going back to work.

SIMON: So, Chris, what rights do workers have to what they consider a safe work environment in this pandemic?

ARNOLD: Well, at the federal level, Scott, the rules are there are no rules. I mean, literally, in terms of mandatory federal safety requirements, the guidelines are all voluntary. So for restaurants, there is guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that recommends that employers, quote, "actively encourage workers to stay home" if they were in close contact with a co-worker who got COVID-19. But again, that's voluntary, so businesses can pretty much do whatever they want.

At the state level, states are putting into place actual enforceable requirements, but those differ from state to state, county to county to city sometimes. And so there's a lot of confusion. We should mention that Virginia right now is in the process of enacting what safety advocates say could be a model for kind of a state-level emergency rules for businesses system. And this would not at all be voluntary. The plan is for state inspectors that would police the new regulations. There would be penalties of up to $124,000, or businesses could even be closed.

SIMON: Chris, what can a worker do if they feel unsafe?

ARNOLD: Workers can call the state health department, the governor's office, the AG's office. Look on their websites and find out what the rules in your state are and what you can do if your employer insists on not following them.

And at the federal level, if your employer is not following even those voluntary federal guidelines, you can file a complaint with OSHA. Now, OSHA can't really enforce voluntary guidelines, but OSHA - this is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration - it will send a letter or contact the employer. And sometimes, just that can be enough. It can scare the employer into saying, oh, oh, the government's calling me. And that can be enough of a nudge to get the employer to make some changes.

SIMON: NPR's Chris Arnold, thanks so much for being with us.

ARNOLD: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.