The GOP's rush to reopen states is a disaster for terrified workers

The GOP's rush to reopen states is a disaster for terrified workers
President Donald J. Trump tours the mask production assembly line Tuesday, May 5, 2020, at Honeywell International Inc. in Phoenix. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

As Republican governors move to reopen businesses in their states before it’s safe to do so, they’re risking certain people’s lives more than others. Workers in restaurants and retail stores, among other businesses that would not be reopening if public health was a concern, have no choice besides risking their lives on the job or starving at home. That’s because when businesses reopen and jobs become available, workers lose their eligibility for unemployment insurance—even if it’s not safe to go back to work.

“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,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Friday as she loosened coronavirus-related restrictions in 77 of the state’s 99 counties. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.” Iowans have a graphic example of how dangerous it can be to go to work: nearly 1,700 workers at four meatpacking plants in the state are infected with coronavirus.

In Ohio, state officials are asking employers to report people who won’t go back to work so that they can be stripped of benefits. Some exemptions are available, but the widespread existence of COVID-19 in the state isn’t enough. “It’s a case by case basis, but if you’re just saying ‘I’m afraid of the virus,’ that would not be sufficient. The analysis would need to be that your work environment, the conditions there, are such that you are at risk from a health and safety standard,” the director of Ohio Department of Job and Family Services told reporters Monday. And workers—the people facing the risks—don’t get to make that determination.

Similarly, an Odessa, Texas, waitress told The Texas Tribune that going back to work without social distancing “scared me, so I left […] Then I had to remember that if I do quit, I would have to lose my unemployment.” Texas officials did subsequently expand qualifications for workers to continue getting unemployment, allowing those who are themselves high risk, live with high-risk people, or who don’t have access to child care to continue on unemployment.

On Tuesday, Texas reported a record gain in COVID-19 cases.

These Republicans are showing their absolute, deadly contempt for workers whose work can’t be done remotely, for workers who are living in fear of missing even one day’s pay—for low-wage workers, in other words. It’s the undercurrent of the push to reopen, from Donald Trump to Republican governors and state lawmakers to the astroturf protesters wielding guns outside statehouses. And it will kill people—just not, at least at first, people Republicans care about.

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