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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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Customers Have Mixed Opinions About COVID-19 Surcharges

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  • Customers have begun noticing “COVID-19 surcharges” on their bills at some restaurants across the U.S.
  • Those outraged by the fees have been calling and harassing restaurants that are adding them, meanwhile, others argue that it’s a small price to pay to help keep these businesses open. 
  • Business owners have said the temporary fees are adjusted weekly to help cover the increased costs of meat, protective gear, and take-out packaging. 
  • They have also stressed that they are not trying to “get rich” off these charges but are just trying to take care of their staff and businesses during the pandemic.

Negative Reactions to Surcharges 

Several customers across the country have noted a coronavirus “surcharge” attached to the bottom of their restaurant bills, prompting a flood of different reactions online.

A $2.19 charge spotted at a restaurant in Missouri sparked a ton of frustration. “Scuse me … what? A covid surcharge…?” a woman posted on Twitter after she found the viral photo online and shared it.

That was met with loads of comments from users saying they would never pay such a charge, while others called it a small price to pay to help support the business.  

Billy Yuzar, the owner and manager of the Japanese steakhouse and sushi lounge, told Fox News that the surcharge was advertised online, as well on the store’s front door and register. He also added that he hadn’t heard any complaints from customers but was bombarded with negative reviews from people who haven’t ever visited his establishment. 

The restaurant eventually took to Facebook to defend itself after employees began facing harassment over the photo. “Please understand we are not doing this to take advantage of you guys!” it said.

“We are doing this hoping we can adjust the surcharge weekly rather than just raise all of our prices on our menu due to increase prices from our supplier on meat, poultry, seafood & produce.”

The restaurant also noted that businesses in the community, which use the same suppliers,  were also adding similar fees. “So why are we the one that [is] being harassed??!! Stop calling names to my employees!!” the post continued.  

In the end, the restaurant apologized, saying it will remove the charge and instead increase prices. It also linked out a CNBC report about changes in the meat supply chain related to the pandemic.

It is true that other restaurants in the area have implemented similar policies. Bootleggers BBQ, another West Plains restaurant, announced it was adding a 5% charge starting on May 8, and customers were initially supportive.

However, the restaurant was later met with several calls and messages accusing it of ripping off customers. “Sadly, these calls were from people out of our area and mostly out of state, not even our customers,” the owner Brian Stacck told NBC’s TODAY.

It too eventually decided to increase prices and remove certain items from its menu in place of the surcharge, promising to print new menus at least once a week to reflect its current limitations and changes. 

Staack told TODAY, “I have 26 employees that we have managed to keep at the same hours, or more, throughout this.”

“All I was trying to do was cover our added food cost and keep them working. But people who wouldn’t take the time to listen to me on the phone, or read our explanation on Facebook, would rather make threats.”

Not Just in Missouri, Not Just Restaurant 

Though most of the reported outrage seems to be coming from Missouri, there are other businesses across the country that have been implementing the fees and price increased for coronavirus related circumstances. 

In San Diego, one Mexican restaurant added a $1 extra charge for carne asada due to meat shortages.

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Covid carne asada surcharge: $1.

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A Texas BBQ joint also noted a price increase for brisket until the “market stabilizes.” 

And it doesn’t just end with restaurants. A dentist’s office in Jacksonville Florida reportedly started charging an extra $10 per appointment to cover personal protective equipment. Meanwhile, in Texas, some hair salons have started adding a $3 sanitation charge, according to KTRK-TV Huston. 

While many might be upset by these extra charges, they are legal, according to Gregory Frank, a New York City-based attorney.

“Generally, restaurants are allowed to structure their pricing however they like,” Frank told TODAY. “The important question is whether the restaurants are disclosing to consumers what they are paying before they pay it, so they can make their own informed choices.”

It’s also important to note that the cost of adjusting and reprinting menus might not make the most economic sense for every restaurant, especially if it hopes that the increased prices will only be short term. 

By adding the added fee to the final sale, Frank says business can also make customers feel more comfortable because they’ll know the temporary charge is related to the current circumstances. 

Positive Reactions to Surcharges 

Still, not every business has faced as much hate for their surcharges. At Goog’s Pub & Grub in Holland, Michigan, the response to surcharges was much more positive.

The store’s general manager and co-owner Palmer White told The Daily News Thursday that it recently increased prices by $1 per order from 86 cents before. “We’ve received overwhelming support. People have been very understanding,” White said.

Like at other businesses, this change is in response to increase meat prices, but its also aimed at covering the large amount of packaging take out orders require. 

“Takeout averages about 82 cents more per meal just to put that meal out cause you’re not just putting it on a plate or tray and washing that again. It’s the silverware, the boxes,” the pub’s other co-owner, Brad White, told Fox 17. 

“When this started, we were running about $50 for a case of burgers and then it was up to $55, $62, $66, $72 last week and they just told me next week it’ll probably be up to $88 a case, so almost double what we were paying.”

The pub also noted that it had given its remaining servers raises “so they can maintain a consistent income.” 

“They’re still getting tips. Actually, we’ve been blown away by people’s generosity. But tips are based on percentages, and sales just aren’t as high without all the alcohol and desserts,” Palmer added. “We’re trying to make sure they’re being taken care of.”

Both have said they plan to remove the extra charge once the damage from the virus settles.

“We’re not doing this to get rich,” said Palmer. “We just want to see our staff is taken care of, make sure people are fed, make sure our lights are on.

See what others are saying: (The Daily News) (Fox News) (TODAY

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Red Lobster Apologizes After Long Mother’s Day Wait Times and Viral Brawl

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  • Several Red Lobster locations were overwhelmed with orders on Mother’s Day, causing crowds of people to wait up to three hours for their food. 
  • One Pennsylvania store had to shut its doors and police were called to keep angry customers calm. 
  • At another restaurant in the state, a woman demanding a refund sparked a physical fight with employees who were forcing her out of the building. 
  • Red Lobster apologized for the delays and promised to issue refunds to those who did not receive orders. It also said it expects both customers and staff to treat each other with respect. 

Long Waits at Red Lobster 

Apparently Red Lobster was the restaurant of choice on Mother’s day because images shared on social media showed massive lines of people waiting to pick up orders at several different locations. 

Many customers reported waiting between two to three hours for their orders while others walked away empty-handed and asked for refunds. 

Though there were angry diners at restaurants in New York, Illinois, and other areas, Pennsylvanians seemed to be the angriest of them all. At one location in the state, police were even called to try and keep things calm after the restaurant decided it had to shut down. 

Viral Video 

As you might have already seen online, a woman at one East York restaurant became so angry that she sparked a pretty violent incident with staff. 

“Call 911 somebody,” a person can be heard saying at the opening of the video. “Get Out!” a store employee repeatedly yells as she forces the angry customer out of the building. 

The woman continues to try and push her way in, demanding a refund. “Get my mother fucking money back,” she shouts and a worker responds “you will get it.”  

“Get this bitch off me,” the customer yells.

Employees start talking about finding the key to lock the door as she continues to demand a refund. At this point, there are several workers at the front trying to keep for entering. When they tell her that all they need is her name to process the refund, she shouts “Kathy Hill,” which, sidenote, has just made it even easier for people on the internet to start doxing her. 

The customer starts asking when exactly she’ll get her refund and the staff continues to tell her they won’t let her in. One employee says “no, you gotta go,” then seems to nudge her away from the door and try to close it. 

So then Karen, I mean Kathy, escalates things even further when she smacks that employee in the face. The employee starts fighting back and others step in to try and separate them. 

Once the fight breaks up, Kathy somehow feels confident enough to say, “I was assaulted and I have a whole crowd to see it.” 

That, of course, prompted a bunch of voices to respond with, “You hit her first! ”

“She’s been shoving up on me the whole time! Who has my glasses!?” she shouts back. She’s given her glasses back as all the employees are ordered inside and the door close. 

“A paying customer. You got people out here waiting for three hours for food!” someone off-camera shouts at the end of the video.  

Red Lobster Apologizes

Under Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s orders, restaurants in the state must either remain closed or operate with a take-out or delivery system to minimize social contact during the pandemic. 

Obviously, that isn’t going so well at some Red Lobster locations, so naturally, people have been demanding refunds and an explanation. 

Red Lober’s CEO issued a statement on Tuesday apologizing to disappointed customers. He noted that the chain had received significantly more orders than they’ve gotten on a single day and were unable to keep up. 

He also stressed that Red Lobster was working to make sure this never happens again. 

In another statement to local news outlets, a company spokesperson attributed the issues to operational and staffing changes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

As far as the brawl at the East York restaurant, the company said: “We do not tolerate violence for any reason in our restaurants. We expect our team members treat our guests with respect, and we expect our guests to treat our team members with respect in return. We are grateful our Manager and the guest involved were not seriously injured in the incident on Sunday.”

So circumstances related to the coronavirus paired with the holiday rush lead to these insane situations, but still, many on social media are reminding people not to take their frustrations out on employees. Of course, we can’t see what exactly led up to the viral fight, but the majority of social media users seem to be taking the employees’ side.

One Red Lobster employee even took to Twitter to share what it was like to work for the chain on Mother’s day.

See what others are saying: (PennLive) (Fox Business) (Market Watch)

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Tesla Sues California County Over Factory Closure, Starts Production Without Approval

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  • Tesla is suing Alameda County in an effort to resume operation at its Fremont factory, claiming that it is considered “national critical infrastructure” and should be able to restart under the governor’s guidance for reopening some businesses with safety modifications.  
  • Musk even threatened to move Tesla’s headquarters out of California, noting that it is the last major carmaker in the state as well as one of it’s largest manufacturing employers.
  • Though a move would be costly and difficult, some believe the tensions could further push Musk to look elsewhere for the manufacturing of other projects.  
  • Fremont’s Mayor urged the county to work with businesses trying to reopen after expressing concern about the potential implications for the regional economy. The county says it is communicating with Tesla and hopes to reach an agreement soon, but Tesla has already started ordering employees back to work.  

Musk Threatens To Move Tesla HQ 

Tesla has filed a lawsuit against Alameda County in Califonia, arguing that its Fremont factory should be allowed to operate during the coronavirus pandemic under the governor’s new guidance for reopening some businesses. 

The factory has been shut since March 23, after the county called for its closure as part of social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders, but the company has been pushing to resume production.

Then on Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he is allowing for sectors like retail, manufacturing, and logistics to reopen with “modifications that reduce risk,” however, he stressed that local officials still have the authority to speed up or slow down reopening at the county level. 

On Saturday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk expressed frustration about local resistance Tesla has faced.

“Tesla is filing a lawsuit against Alameda County immediately,” Musk announced in a tweet. “The unelected & ignorant “Interim Health Officer” of Alameda is acting contrary to the Governor, the President, our Constitutional freedoms & just plain common sense!”

Musk even threatened to move Tesla’s headquarters to Texas or Nevada as a result of the shutdown.

Musk’s frustration seems to have been building because late last month, he ranted about stay-home orders in the company’s April 29 first-quarter earnings call. In it, he called the restrictions fascist and a violation of people’s constitutional rights. 

Tesla Releases Blogpost Explaining Lawsuit and Restart Plans

The same day Musk tweeted his threat, Tesla released a blog post about how it will get it’s employees back to work safely. In the post, the company noted that it is the last major carmaker in the state as well as one of it’s largest manufacturing employers with more than 10,000 workers at its Fremont factory and 20,000 statewide. 

Tesla again argued that its Fremont plant should be allowed to reopen under Newsom’s recent guidelines, but it also said it should have always had permission to continue production because the state and federal government classifies vehicle manufacturing as “national critical infrastructure.”

It company even noted that, “Alameda county, where our factory resides, and Santa Clara County next door, have stated in their return to work order FAQs that the manufacturing of distributed energy resources (which is defined in state law to include electric vehicles, solar and battery storage) is permitted to resume.”

Along with these points, the company explained that it has worked hard on a “robust” restart plan, saying, “It was modeled after the comprehensive return to work plan we established at our Shanghai Gigafactory, which has seen smooth and healthy operations for the last three months.”

“Contrary to the Governor’s recent guidance and support from the City of Fremont, Alameda County is insisting we should not resume operations,” Tesla’s leadership added in the post. 

“This is not for lack of trying or transparency since we have met with and collaborated on our restart plans with the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency.” 

The company claims that the County Public Health Officer making decisions about reopening has not returned its calls and emails listing out detailed restart plans, factory layouts, and more. 

“We will continue to put people back to work in a safe and responsible manner. However, the County’s position left us no choice but to take legal action to ensure that Tesla and its employees can get back to work,” it said before noting that it is asking the court to render the shutdown order invalid.

Alameda County Responds  

Fremont Mayor Lili Mei responded to Tesla Saturday afternoon saying, “As the local shelter-in-place order continues without provisions for major manufacturing activity, such as Tesla, to resume, I am growing concerned about the potential implications for our regional economy.”

“We know many essential businesses have proven they can successfully operate using strict safety and social distancing practices. I strongly believe these same practices could be possible for other manufacturing businesses, especially those that are so critical to our employment base.”

She then encouraged the county to work with local businesses to reopen with acceptable guidelines.

Shortly after, Alameda County’s Health Department released a statement saying it has been working with Tesla to develop a safety plan allowing the Fremont plant to reopen while protecting workers. 

“This has been a collaborative, good faith effort to develop and implement a safety plan that allows for reopening while protecting the health and well-being of the thousands of employees who travel to and from work at Tesla’s factory,” the county said.

“We look forward to coming to an agreement on an appropriate safety plan very soon.″

However, it stressed that “It is our collective responsibility to move through the phases of reopening and loosening the restrictions of the shelter-in-place order in the safest way possible, guided by data and science.”

Scott Haggerty, supervisor for the Fremont district of Alameda County, told the New York Times on Saturday, “We were working on a lot of policies and procedures to help operate that plant and quite frankly, I think Tesla did a pretty good job, and that’s why I had it to the point where on May 18, Tesla would have opened.”

“I know Elon knew that. But he wanted it this week,” he added.

Criticism and Support 

It seems like Tesla could be getting the green light it was hoping for, though it’s unclear when. However, Tesla apparently isn’t waiting for approval. According to a report from The Verge, some employees were called back to work at the facility over the weekend and others are scheduled to report to work later this week.

Then on Monday, Musk acknowledged that he was restarting against orders.

Still, some lawmakers don’t seem to happy about Tesla’s attempts to reopen. California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) added fuel to the flames after Musk’s threat when she tweeted, “F—- Elon Musk.”

“California has highly subsidized a company that has always disregarded worker safety & well-being, has engaged in union busting & bullies public servants,” wrote Gonzalez in a follow-up tweet on Sunday. “I probably could’ve expressed my frustration in a less aggressive way. Of course, no one would’ve cared if I tweeted that.”

On the other hand, Tesla has seen some support from those like U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Mnuchin backed Musk on Monday, telling CNBC that California should help Tesla reopen its plant.

“I agree with Elon Musk. He’s one of the biggest employers and manufacturers in California, and California should prioritize doing whatever they need to do to solve those health issues so that he can open quickly and safely,” Mnuchin said on “Squawk on the Street.”

“They’re going to find that if he’s threatened he’s going to move his production to a different state,” Mnuchin added.

As some have pointed out, moving Tesla’s headquarters, especially during the pandemic, would be a difficult and costly move for the company.

“Moving away from Fremont would take at least 12 to 18 months and could add risk to the manufacturing and logistics process in the meantime,” Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives wrote in a note to investors.

However, Musk has previously hinted that he’s eyeing other places to build his Cybertrucks and expand production of his Model Y crossover, so some believe Musk’s frustrations with the state and county could further push him to launch more operations elsewhere.

The lawsuits come as competing automakers are gradually starting to reopen factories in the U.S. Toyota will restart production on Monday, while General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler all plan to restart their plants gradually on May 18. 

See what others are saying: (Huffington Post) (Axios) (CNBC) 

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