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Unemployed Workers Forced to Choose Between Safety and Money as States Reopen

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  • As some states start reopening their economies, laid-off and furloughed workers are being asked to return.
  • Many are worried that their workplaces do not have sufficient safety measures in place to protect them; however, states like Iowa and Texas have warned that refusing to work out of fear of contracting the coronavirus will make them ineligible for unemployment benefits. 
  • There are a few expectations, like for those who have the virus or are caring for someone who does, and states like Colorado are taking additional steps to keep people on unemployment if their workplaces are unsafe. 
  • Fears about returning to work come just as the Department of labor recorded 3.8 new unemployment claims last week, bringing the total of claims to 30 million in six weeks.

States Reopening Creates Dilemma for Workers

Several states across the country have already started to reopen their economies, while others are laying out plans to do so in the next few weeks and months. This means many laid-off and furloughed Americans are having to decide whether or not they feel comfortable enough to return to the workforce.

But they might not really have a choice. If they refuse an offer to return to work out of fear for their health, federal guidelines say that they could lose the unemployment aid that many have only just started to receive, as noted by Politico.

There are a few exceptions under a program called Pandemic Unenmplyement Assistance, approved under the CARE act. That program extends unemployment benefits to people who can’t return to work if they are sick with the virus or taking care of a family member who is, among a few other specific criteria. 

Still, millions of workers feat that their workplace’s safety precautions won’t be sufficient enough to keep them from getting sick. Public health experts and labor advocates have been calling for the Trump administration to layout some mandatory regulations and science-based guidelines to protect workers and inform businesses on how to reopen. 

The administration, however, has only advised employers to follow best practices like social distancing and wearing protective gear. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signaled that it was up to states to enact those measures, saying, “We want the governors to call those shots,” at a roundtable with industry executives at the White House.

On top of that, Republicans have been pushing to expand liability protections for businesses to shield them form coronavirus related lawsuits. Many believe such protections could give employers less incentive to care for their workers’ health. 

The calls for mandatory safety precautions became even louder this week after the president ordered meat plants to stay open despite massive outbreaks in several facilities that, in some cases, spread to the community.  

Because of federal standards around “prevailing conditions of work,” a person seeking unemployment benefits could theoretically argue their working conditions are unsafe due to the outbreak. But it might be a hard case to make in some states, and many workers might not even have the time or resources to take on that kind of battle. 

Some states, like Colorado, are trying to find a way to allow workers to remain on unemployment if their workplaces are in fact unsafe. This week, the state started allowing some businesses to reopen, but “vulnerable individuals,” including senior citizens or those with certain health conditions, cannot be compelled to return if they have to work near others. 

The state’s labor department also said the vulnerable may continue to be eligible for benefits if returning to work is a risk to their health or the health of someone they live with. “If you’ve been offered a job and refused that job for health reasons or Covid reasons, be sure and put that into the form so that we can look at that, assess that and determine if you may be eligible to continue to receive benefits,” said Joe Barela, the department’s executive director.

Fear Alone Is Not Enough, Some States Say

But other states have made it clear that fear of catching the virus is not enough of a reason to refuse to return 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 (R) said Friday. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

On Monday, the governor announced that she was loosening social distancing restrictions in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties, effective May 1. Under her order, retail stores, gyms, restaurants, and other businesses will be allowed to open. Reynolds also said employers who have workers that refuse to return should file a report with Iowa Workforce Development. 

Laid-off workers are facing a similar dilemma in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) gave the go-ahead for retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and malls to reopen on Friday. According to the Texas Workforce Commission, to qualify for unemployment benefits in the state, a worker must be “willing and able to work all the days and hours required for the type of work you are seeking.”

Cisco Gamez, a Texas Workforce Commission spokesman, told the Texas Tribune that employees who choose not to return to work will become ineligible for unemployment benefits.

South Carolina and Tennessee have messages on their websites noting that workers refusing to return will lose unemployment aid the same week they turn down an offer. 

New Unemployment Numbers 

The concerns for some heading back to work come just at the Department of Labor released its weekly report on unemployment claims, recording 3.8 million more Americans filing for benefits during the week ending on April 25. 

The data brings the total number of people applying for benefits over the last six weeks to more than 30 million. 

Unemployment claims have hit unprecedented levels as the coronavirus keeps business across the nation closed. However, as far as weeks go, this new report shows a decline in claims. In late March, the department registered 3.3 million claims in a single week. In the weeks since that first spike, the department recorded 6.9 million, 6.6 million, 5.2 million, and then 4.4 million claims. 

Still, even if the peak of layoffs is behind us, the country is in uncharted waters with these incredibly high numbers. Before the virus outbreaks, the highest number of new unemployment claims in a week was about 700,000 back in 1982. 

Economists have noted that part of why claims are so high is because more people, like gig workers and independent contractors, are not covered for benefits under the CARES act. But experts also warned that there could be even more without work who have yet to be recorded in the system because unemployment offices all over the country are so overwhelmed with cases. 

Preliminary numbers for the full month of April are scheduled to be released Friday, May 8. That report is expected to have some staggering numbers that could help better understand the extent of the damage this pandemic has had on the American workforce. 

See what others are saying: (Newsweek) (Vox) (Politico

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Frito-Lay Workers End Nearly Three-Week Strike After Securing Higher Wages and a Guaranteed Day Off

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Employees also negotiated an end to “suicide shifts,” which are two 12-hour shifts that are only eight hours apart. 


Strike Ends

Hundreds of Frito-Lay workers in Kansas have put an end to their nearly three-week strike over alleged mandatory overtime assignments that resulted in extremely long work weeks and so-called “suicide shifts.”

The term “suicide shift” refers to working two 12-hour shifts with only eight hours of rest in between. That can be especially hard on employees who claim to have worked up to 84 hours in a single week. For context, that’s 12 hours a day without a single day off. 

One of the reasons workers have found themselves taking on more hours and days at plants is because consumer snacking has increased during the pandemic — so much so that Frito Lay’s recent net growth has exceeded every single one of its targets. That’s why at one point, the striking workers asked consumers to boycott Frito-Lay products in a show of solidarity.

The strikes began July 5 and concluded on July 23 following an agreement reached by union leaders and PepsiCo., Frito-Lay’s parent company. Under that deal, all employees will see a 4% wage increase over the next two years. They’ll also be guaranteed at least one day off a week, and the company will no longer schedule workers with only eight hours off between shifts. 

Following the agreement, Anthony Shelton, the president of the union representing the workers, said that they’ve “shown the world that union working people can stand up against the largest food companies in the world and claim victory for themselves, their families and their communities.”

“We believe our approach to resolving this strike demonstrates how we listen to our employees, and when concerns are raised, they are taken seriously and addressed,” Frito-Lay said in a statement. “Looking ahead, we look forward to continuing to build on what we have accomplished together based on mutual trust and respect.”

The Long, Bitter Road to an Agreement

When the workers went on strike, they lobbed several very disturbing accusations against Frito-Lay. 

In fact, the workers were pushed so hard that according to one employee who wrote in the Topeka Capital-Journal, “When a co-worker collapsed and died, you had us move the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going.”

While Frito-Lay dismissed this account as “entirely false,” other employees continued to protest conditions in the plants. Many even argued the 90-degree temperatures they had to stand in to protest outside were preferable to the 100-degree-plus temperatures and smokey conditions in the factories. 

During the strikes, PepsiCo. actively disputed that its employees are overworked, describing their claims as “grossly exaggerated” and saying, “Our records indicate 19 employees worked 84 hours in a given work week in 2021, with 16 of those as a result of employees volunteering for overtime and only 3 being required to work.” 

It also said an initial concession more than met the striking employees’ terms, but the union backing those workers disagreed, and further negotiations were held until the final deal was reached. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (Business Insider)

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Friendship Is on the Decline in America Compared to 30 Years Ago

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While the COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for increased isolation Americans have experienced over the past year, other factors for the drop in friendships include political differences, couples marrying later, and parents spending more time with kids.


Americans Have Fewer Friends Today

A new study released by the Survey Center on American Life has essentially found that friends are in short supply in America — or rather, that “despite renewed interest in the topic of friendship in popular culture and the news media, signs suggest that the role of friends in American social life is experiencing a pronounced decline.”

Out of more than 2,019 respondents made up of U.S. adults, only 13% said they had more than 10 close friends. That’s a big drop compared to a 1990 Gallup poll, which reported that a third of U.S. adults said they had more than 10 close friends. 

The poll also found that fewer Americans now say they have a “best” friend: 59% today compared to 75% in 1990.

Friendship Breakers: the Pandemic, Politics, and Work 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has very likely been the most direct cause of isolation over the past year.

As the poll also notes, women ages 18-29 appear to be the most affected demographic, with 43% having lost touch with at least a few friends and 16% indicating that they’re no longer in regular contact with most of their friends.

In addition to the pandemic, former President Donald Trump seems to be driving more broken friendships than perhaps most presidents. In fact, 22% of the respondents who said they ended a friendship cited Trump specifically. 

According to the poll, 20% of Democrats and 10% of Republicans have ended friendships over political disagreements, with 28% of political liberals saying they would end a friendship over political differences as opposed to 10% of conservatives. 

Other factors for Americans’ lost friendships include couples marrying later, parents spending more time with kids, as well as people working longer hours and being more geographically mobile.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. While “best friends” are in shorter supply than in 1990, more than half of U.S. adults still say they have one. Another 46% of Americans have also reported making at least one new friend over the last year.  

See what others are saying: (Insider) (Independent) (Axios)

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NFL Says Teams Could Be Forced To Forfeit Games If Unvaccinated Players Cause COVID-19 Outbreaks

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Neither team will be paid for any forfeited games, and the team that faces the outbreak must also cover all expenses for the opposing team.


NFL Issues Strong Warning to the Unvaccinated

The National Football League announced Thursday that if a game is canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players on a certain team, that team will be forced to forfeit the match. 

Additionally, the league said players on both teams will not be paid for any forfeited games, and the team that causes the game to be canceled will also be forced to cover all expenses for the opposing team. It could also face disciplinary action from the Commissioner’s Office. 

As NFL.com writer Kevin Patra noted, this is “the clearest line the NFL has drawn to date and the most substantial incentive yet for owners, teams and coaches to pressure players to get vaccinated.”

While the league has not mandated that its players and staff get vaccinated, in its Thursday memo, it said that “nearly all clubs have vaccinated 100 percent of their Tier 1 and 2 staffs.” It also noted that 75% of players “are in the process of being vaccinated, and more than half the clubs have vaccination rates greater than 80 percent of their players.”

The NFL added that vaccinated players or staff who test positive and are asymptomatic will be allowed to return to work following two negative tests 24 hours apart. For unvaccinated players and staff who test positive, the NFL is deferring to its 2020 rules: 10-day isolation.

Rescheduling Vs. Canceling

Unvaccinated players — regardless of whether they test positive or not — will also be subject to more stringent protocols, including daily testing, mask-wearing, and travel restrictions.

That said, there is one potential loophole for teams that find themselves subject to outbreaks, though it could still be a longshot. The NFL will allow games to be rescheduled as long as they fit within the timeframe of its regular season.

“We do not anticipate adding a ‘19th week’ to accommodate games that cannot be rescheduled within the current 18 weeks of the regular season,” the NFL made clear in its memo. 

Still, the NFL may not be as flexible as it was during 2020. For example, while it was able to reschedule all of its postponed games during that season, it did so by moving some to Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

What Players Are Saying 

Currently-unvaccinated players were quick to speak out against the memo on Thursday.

“Never thought I would say this, But being put in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the @NFL,” Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said in a now-deleted tweet.

Source: @deandrehopkins

Those advocating for players to get vaccinated have argued that not vaccinating yourself while engaging in a high-contact sport could still result in hurting teammates. In fact, several athletes have reported lingering effects following COVID-19 diagnoses, and some worry that long-term lung issues could cut their careers short. 

Similar to Hopkins, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle DJ Reader tweeted, “Talk about getting your hand forced smh.”

Las Vegas Raiders running back even compared this year’s season to “playing in jail” in a now-deleted tweet, saying, “read the rules-know em like you know your plays.”

Meanwhile, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said he hopes his team is “headed toward 100%” vaccination following the memo. 

See what others are saying: (NFL) (ESPN) (The Hill)

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