Scared to Return to Work? Can’t with Kids at Home?

As businesses begin to reopen, many Americans are still wary of going to work, or cannot because they lack access to childcare. Here’s what you need to know, according to one NPR article.

With places like California are under stay-at-home orders for the foreseeable future, some states are beginning to reopen restaurants, hair salons, bars and more. Many Americans called back to work say they feel unsafe, or they cannot go to work because of their children at home.

People in high-contact jobs like the service business or beauty salons may want to work, but their high-risk at work gives them pause, one NPR piece explains.

“With people eating food, not having masks on, with servers having to touch their plates and their silverware, there's just absolutely no way to keep the servers safe,” says Lindsey, a waitress in Iowa.

She has been out of work for two months, but this week, the restaurant she works at is reopening. Even though the restaurant announced it would enforce social distancing for employees and increase handwashing systems, she still feels uneasy.

“I don't feel comfortable going back yet. I don’t feel comfortable at all,” she says. Lindsey wants only her first name used because she's worried about losing her job.

She thinks that serving people is what poses the most risk—for her and the customer. If the restaurant could continue doing delivery and takeout, that would be better.

Many people are in Lindsey’s position—having to choose between a paycheck and their safety in their home. Many more have the consideration of children, and many cannot leave their kids at home when schools and daycares are still closed.

If you employer offers you your job back and you refuse it, you are technically not eligible for unemployment benefits. However, there are strategies and protections you can seek. Here are the recommendations the NPR article has if you are in a position like this.

Talk to your employer.

Don’t rule out your employer’s reasonability just yet. Employers may hire the staff back slowly, and if you request to wait, your employer might be understanding. Start with a conversation.

There are special rules if you have an underlying health condition.

“My big concern is that most workers don’t understand their rights,” says Michele Evermore of the nonprofit National Employment Law Project.

For example, if you have diabetes, heart disease or immune deficiency, Congress voted to let people in that situation collect unemployment. However, you need a letter from your doctor and to talk to your state unemployment office.

If you can’t get childcare, you should be able to stay on unemployment.

For parents who cannot send their kids to school, daycare or camps, Congress voted to help them, too.

Many parents in this position are eligible for unemployment benefits. Some parents may be eligible for 12 weeks of paid leave mandated by Congress, though that depends on the size of the business.

But just being afraid is not enough to stay on unemployment.

Getting back to the safety issue, Feldblum says just feeling unsafe is not enough to stay on unemployment. “No. If you're just scared about going to work, you have to go to work in order to get paid,” she says.

What if your workplace seems particularly unsafe?

If your workplace is not taking basic safety precautions that similar businesses in the area are and you can document that, you might qualify to refuse to go back to work and stay on unemployment. You would have to make the argument that your workplace is not meeting the prevailing conditions of work in the area. However, you have to argue this with the state unemployment office.

Some argue, however, that a bigger issue exists. There is no federal regulation that mandates safety rules for each workplace, and it is up to states to decide what suitable work is. Hundreds of groups are asking for better federal guidelines on worker safety.

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