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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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Mental Health Startup Cerebral May Have Harmed Hundreds of Patients, Leaked Documents Reveal

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The company is being investigated by multiple federal agencies for its questionable practices, which have come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks.


Over 2,000 Incident Reports Shed Light on Recklessness

A Silicon Valley mental health startup called Cerebral may have harmed hundreds of patients by flagrantly disregarding medical standards, according to a cache of documents reviewed by Insider, as well as over 30 interviews with current or former employees by the outlet.

Founded in 2020, Cerebral provides mental health treatment to customers through talk therapy and medication for conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, and ADHD.

With people quarantined during the pandemic, it became one of the largest virtual therapy firms in the United States, attracting some $462 million from investors.

Cerebral employees filed at least 2,060 incident reports during seven months in 2021, according to Insider. They show that the company enrolled patients with complex conditions like bipolar disorder, then assigned them to clinicians and other staff members with insufficient training, oversight, and support to treat such cases.

It also put dozens of patients on questionable treatment plans and misdiagnosed many others, the reports say, with company medical providers prescribing potentially lethal combinations of drugs or addictive drugs to patients with histories of addiction.

Additionally, many patients were left stranded without care for extended periods due to technology issues or the company’s failure to retain clinicians.

As a result, Cerebral shuffled patients from one provider to the next and even bungled their prescriptions, sometimes leading them to suffer drug withdrawal or take the wrong medication.

Patients Tell Their Stories

One patient reportedly spent two weeks waiting for a referral to a clinician, later saying she spent eight days in a psychiatric ward.

Another patient told CBS News she was prescribed a drug for her anxiety but afterward could not reach her prescriber for instructions on how to switch to the new medication safely.

“Any time I needed help, she was never available,” she said.

After she did not get a response for six days, she began taking the drug anyway, which caused her to break out in a rash.

“I messaged back,” she said, “letting them know it was spreading and getting worse, and they said that they were still trying to get a hold of that prescriber… They make it seem like they want to help, and then they get you, and then they’re gone.”

A Cerebral spokesperson told Insider that the reports did not highlight enough patients to accurately reflect the company.

“Any incident reports you obtained show Cerebral’s dedication to quality,” the spokesperson said. “You can’t take a relatively small group of incident reports and draw conclusions about our care.”

Two former senior employees told the outlet those reports were monitored by just a couple of people who had other responsibilities at the company, adding that leadership frequently pushed off solving the systemic issues flagged.

Cerebral’s practices are currently being investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (CBS News) (Fierce Healthcare)

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Instagram Testing New Tools To Verify Users Are Over 18

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The new tools include AI software that analyzes video footage of a person’s face to verify their age.


Instagram Cracks Down on Underage Users

Instagram is testing new features in the United States to verify the age of users who claim to be over 18 years old. 

According to a statement from Instagram’s parent company, Meta, the tools will only apply to users who seek to change their age from under 18 to over 18. The platform previously asked for users to upload their ID for verification in this process, but on Thursday, it announced there will be two new methods for confirming age. 

One of the strategies was referred to as “social vouching.” Using this option, people can request that three mutual Instagram followers over the age of 18 confirm their age on the platform.

The other method allows users to upload a video selfie of themselves to be analyzed by Yoti, third-party age verification software. Yoti then estimates a person’s age based on their facial features, sends that estimate to Meta, and both companies delete the recording. 

According to Meta, Yoti cannot recognize or identify a face based on the recording and only looks at the pixels to determine an age. Meta said that Yoti “is the leading age verification provider for several industries around the world,” as it has been used and promoted by social media companies and governmental organizations. 

Still, some question how effective it will be for this specific use. According to The Verge, while the software does have a high accuracy rate among certain age groups and demographics, data also shows it is less precise for female faces and faces with darker skin tones. 

Issues With Kids on Instagram

Meta argues that it is important for Instagram to be able to discern who is and is not 18, as it impacts what version of the app users have access to.

“We’re testing this so we can make sure teens and adults are in the right experience for their age group,” the company’s statement said. 

“When we know if someone is a teen (13-17), we provide them with age-appropriate experiences like defaulting them into private accounts, preventing unwanted contact from adults they don’t know and limiting the options advertisers have to reach them with ads,” it continued. 

These changes come as Instagram has been facing increased pressure to address the way its app impacts younger users. 

Only children 13 and older are allowed to have Instagram accounts, but the service has faced criticism for not doing enough to enforce this. A 2021 survey of high school students found that nearly half of the respondents had created a social media account of some kind before they were 13.

The company also recently came under fire after The Wall Street Journal published internal Meta documents revealing that the company knew that it harmed teens, including by worsening body image issues for young girls and women.

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (The Wall Street Journal) (Axios)

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Elon Musk Threatens to Fire Employees Unless They Work in Person Full-Time

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The world’s richest man in the world previously suggested that the popularity of remote work has “tricked people into thinking that you don’t actually need to work hard.”


“If You Don’t Show up, We Will Assume You Have Resigned”

On Wednesday, Electrek published two leaked emails apparently sent from Elon Musk to Tesla’s executive staff threatening to fire them if they don’t return to work in person.

“Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla,” he wrote. “This is less than we ask of factory workers.”

“If there are particularly exceptional contributors for whom this is impossible, I will review and approve those exceptions directly,” he continued.

Musk then clarified that the “office” must be a main office, not a “remote branch office unrelated to the job duties.”

“There are of course companies that don’t require this, but when was the last time they shipped a great new product? It’s been a while,” he wrote in the second email.

Later on Wednesday, a Twitter user asked Musk to comment on the idea that coming into work is an antiquated concept.

He replied, “They should pretend to work somewhere else.”

The Billionaire Pushes People to Work Harder

Musk has a history of pressuring his employees and criticizing them for not working hard enough.

“All the Covid stay-at-home stuff has tricked people into thinking that you don’t actually need to work hard. Rude awakening inbound,” he tweeted last month.

Three economists told Insider that remote work during the pandemic did not damage productivity.

“Most of the evidence shows that productivity has increased while people stayed at home,” Natacha Postel-Vinay, an economic and financial historian at the London School of Economics, told the outlet.

Musk is notorious for criticizing lockdown mandates and went so far as to call them “fascist” during a Tesla earnings call in April 2020.

Not long before that, Tesla announced that it would keep its Fremont, California plant open in defiance of shelter-in-place orders across the state.

In an interview with The Financial Times last month, Musk blasted American workers for trying to stay home, comparing them to their Chinese counterparts whom he said work harder.

“They won’t just be burning the midnight oil. They will be burning the 3 a.m. oil,” he said. “They won’t even leave the factory type of thing, whereas in America people are trying to avoid going to work at all.”

That same day, Fortune published an article detailing how Tesla workers in Shanghai work 12-hour shifts, six days out of the week, sometimes sleeping on the factory floor.

See what others are saying: (CNBC) (Electrek) (Business Insider)

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