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Thousands of Workers Say Their Jobs Are Unsafe as COVID-19 Cases Spike

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  • 1.5 million people filed for unemployment last week, though continuing claims fell by nearly 1 million.
  • But as the labor market stabilizes and more communities reopen, thousands of workers have filed complaints with the government alleging their workplaces are not safe to be in during the pandemic.
  • Workplace safety has become a major issue that is expected to grow as reopenings continue, especially because there are no enforceable federal laws that require employers to protect their workers during the pandemic.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. hit 2 million cases of coronavirus, and at least 20 states have reported increases in their numbers.

Concerns Over Worker Safety

Another 1.5 million people filed for unemployment, the government reported Thursday, marking the continued trend of decreasing claims over the last few weeks.

Perhaps even more notably, the number of continuing claims, which counts how many people filed two weeks in a row, fell to 20.9 million from 21.3 million last week. Economists now say that continuing claims are a better economic marker of how the U.S. labor market is doing as the pandemic continues.

The lower numbers are, at least in part, a reflection of the widespread reopenings that have taken place over the last several weeks. But as reopenings continuing and the number of people going back to work rises, so do the concerns about workplace safety in the pandemic.

Those concerns are due to one major reason: the fact that there are no rules for pandemic-related workplace safety on the federal level.

The federal government has issued guidelines for employers that reopen, but like the federal guidelines for states that reopen, they are not mandatory or enforceable.

While governors in some states have put worker protections in place under executive orders, there have been growing numbers of people who say they do not feel safe at their jobs and have filed formal complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

According to the official government data, OSHA has received thousands of workplace safety complaints related to COVID-19 over the last few months. Those complaints have risen significantly since states started reopening.

At the end of April, before states started reopening, OSHA reported just over 3,000 claims were filed at the federal level and 7,800 at the state level. But as of Wednesday, federal claims jumped to over 5,000 while state claims nearly doubled to more than 12,430.

With the growing claims, labor activists and unions have started putting more pressure on the government. In mid-May, the AFL-CIO, which one of the largest labor unions in the country, announced that it was suing OSHA to get it to implement mandatory national safety requirements during the pandemic.

At the same time, Republican congress members have been trying to pass legislation that would protect employers from being sued by their workers if they catch the virus— and idea that President Donald Trump has also said he supports.

Huge Spikes in States Reopening

But as states push forward with their reopenings, labor advocates are worried that without a codified national law the situation will only get worse, especially given massive spikes in coronavirus cases that have been reported in numerous states in recent days.

On Wednesday, the U.S. officially hit two million confirmed cases, and according to reports, new infections are now increasing in at least 20 states.

South Carolina, which had reopened most businesses by the end of last month, is now reporting more daily cases than ever— even higher than the state’s previous peak in April.

Florida, which was one of the first states to ease restrictions and has implemented one of the broadest reopenings, is also seeing a surge. On Saturday, more people in the state tested positive for COVID-19 than any other day in the past two months.

One of the biggest new hotspots is Arizona, where cases have increased 115% since its stay-at-home order ended on May 15. This week, the state also reported an average of over 1,000 new cases every day, making it the highest per capita infection growth rate in the U.S.

On Tuesday, Arizona’s health department said that only a quarter of the state’s ICU beds were available, which promoted the state’s health director to direct hospitals to activate coronavirus emergency plans for the first time since March. 

But Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has refused to put restrictions back in place, and the executive order he signed that lifted restrictions explicitly prohibits local officials from putting further restrictions in place to curb the virus in places where there are large outbreaks.

Ducey has also repeatedly claimed that the rise in cases is due to the increased number of tests that the state was administering— a claim disputed by numerous health experts.

“It’s very clear that it’s a real increase in community spread,” Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association told KJZZ. “It’s not some artifact of additional testing.”

Humble’s remarks were also echoed Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told the Post that positive test rates are outpacing the increased testing, which suggests Arizona’s enhanced testing is not the cause of the spike.

Ducey, however, is not the only governor that has made the argument about increased testing contributing to a rise in cases. Leaders in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, and several other states have prompted similar claims in the last few weeks.  

But both public health experts and current data puts those claims in serious contention.

According to NPR, cellphone data collected by the Gleam Project suggest that “people in the U.S. are moving around at a level that’s up to about two-thirds of what it was before shutdown rules were implemented. This supports the idea that the new increases are real, not just a result of more testing.”

Governors Push Ahead

However, governors all across the country are still pushing ahead with easing more restrictions, including in some of the largest hotspots.

In Texas, where total cases shot up by one-third over the last two weeks, Gov. Greg Abbott still said he plans to move ahead with his plan reopen basically all businesses that have not already reopened by the end of the week.

When Texas set new records for coronavirus hospitalizations on three consecutive days this week, Abbott said the spike in cases is expected and “largely the result of isolated hot spots in nursing homes, jails, and meat packing plants.” 

But local health officials have said that is not true, and that there is a clear link between Abbott’s early and broad reopening. 

Other states are also pressing ahead with new openings despite significant rising cases.

In Arkansas infections rose by one third in a week and hospitalizations have also gone up nearly 90% since Memorial Day.

Despite that, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on Wednesday he is still going to go ahead with phase two reopenings, arguing that the surges were not tied to his easing restrictions.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (Politico)

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Viral Photo of Crowded Reopened Georgia High School Sparks Concerns

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  • A viral photo showing students at North Paulding High School in Georgia walking in a crowded hallway without masks has sparked widespread concerns about schools reopening safely.
  • According to BuzzFeed News, there is at least one football player that has tested positive for the coronavirus, as well as several staff members.
  • Students who choose to not go to school can be suspended or expelled. Additionally, students who share content criticizing the school can be punished as well, and two have already been suspended for sharing photos of crowded halls, according to BuzzFeed.
  • This school is just one of many in Georgia making headlines for seeing positive COVID-19 cases. In Cherokee County, there are four schools with confirmed cases that have forced dozens of students to quarantine within their first week back.

Viral Photo in North Paulding High School

When North Paulding High School in Georgia opened back up on Monday, kids were crammed in the hallway between classes, shoulder to shoulder, many without masks.

A photo that captured one of these crowded halls quickly went viral, prompting widespread outrage as it highlighted just one of several concerns many have about schools reopening throughout the state.

Paulding County Schools Superintendent Brian Otott addressed the photo in a letter early this week, claiming that it lacked larger context. Masks are not mandatory at North Paulding, as the school district said that the choice to wear a mask is a personal one, and claim enforcing a mandate is not realistic. Otott also said that students are not passing one another in the hallway to transmit COVID-19.

Health experts, however, do not believe this is true. With such close proximity and a lack of masks, transmission in situations like this is still possible. The school’s first day also comes as both new cases and deaths in the state of Georgia are in their peak. So far, the state has had a total of 186,395 cases and 3,899 deaths.

If that photo did not spark enough concerns, there is also already at least one confirmed coronavirus case on North Paulding’s football team. According to BuzzFeed News, footballers at the school are not the only ones at risk.

Teachers told the outlet that there are positive cases among the staff, including an employee who came into contact with most teachers while they were symptomatic. Still, the school will not confirm cases among employees for privacy reasons. 

That was exactly one week ago, so we are all waiting to see who gets sick next week,” one teacher told BuzzFeed.

Most who are nervous about attending school are left with essentially no other option than to face their fears and risk infection. Virtual learning was an option for students at North Paulding, but the limited slots filled up quickly. On top of this, BuzzFeed News learned from a set of parents who wanted to keep their son home upon seeing the photo, that any student who chooses to not attend school could face suspension or expulsion.

On top of this, the school made an announcement warning students that anyone who shared negative content about the school online would face disciplinary action. According to BuzzFeed News, two students have already been suspended for sharing now-viral photos of crowded halls.

Concerns Statewide

North Paulding is not the only school in the state making headlines. In Cherokee County, a second grader tested positive for the virus on the first day of school. Now, their class of 20 students will be quarantining for 14 days. 

On Wednesday, officials announced that three additional schools in the county had positive cases. Those cases involved a first grader, eighth grader, and Kindergarten teacher. Several students and staff at each of these schools now must undergo a two week quarantine as well.

Statewide, school officials are concerned about what the school year will look like.

“So long as COVID-19 runs rampant, there will be too many bodies in close quarters for us to co-exist in a traditional setting,” Dooly County Schools Superintendent Craig Lockhart telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are not ready to return to in-person schooling and be highly confident that we can protect employees and students.”

But on the other side of this, there are parents and students eager to get back to in person classes, either because they trust their school district to handle things well, or because online learning at home just was not working well for them.

“There is a really strong case for trying to reopen schools because there are so many benefits, both for children, not only academic benefits but health and social-emotional health, and also for families, many of whom are trying to get back to work to restart the economy,”  Charlene Wong, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Duke School of Medicine also told the AJC.

Can Kids Spread the Virus?

Still, Wong believes that safety opening schools is complex and requires a multitude of safety measures. The risk is especially high because experts are still in the early stages of learning what role children play in spreading and getting this virus, especially in a crowded space like a school. Currently, most studies and research have not focused on children, so there is not enough data to prove anything just yet, despite the widespread belief that children are less likely to get and transmit the virus.

In fact, one case out of Georgia proves that idea wrong. One summer camp in Georgia was forced to close after there were 260 coronavirus cases on site, the majority of which came from people aged 17 and younger. 

Another study done in South Korea concluded that while children nine and under do not transmit the virus as frequently as adults, the risk of them doing so still exists. That study also claims that people between the ages 10 and 19 actually spread COVID-19 at the same rate as adults. 

See what others are saying: (BuzzFeed News) (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) (Washington Post)

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NJ Woman Charged for Assaulting Staples Customer Who Asked Her to Correctly Wear a Mask

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  • New Jersey Police have charged 25-year-old Terri Thomas with second-degree aggravated assault for violently tossing a woman with a cane to the ground at a Staples store last Wednesday.
  • Thomas attacked 54-year-old Margot Kagan for telling her to wear her face mask properly.
  • Kagan, who police say had a liver transplant four months ago, was hospitalized and is recovering from a leg injury that required surgery as a result of the incident. 

The Incident

Police in New Jersey said Tuesday that they arrested and charged a woman caught on surveillance video attacking a fellow Staples customer who told her to correctly wear her mask. 

The dispute happened inside a Hackensack Staples store last Wednesday when 54-year-old Margot Kagan was using the copy machine. Kagan, who police said had a liver transplant four months ago, noticed 25-year-old Terri Thomas walk by with her mask below her mouth. 

Kagan told a local news station that she told Thomas, “You should really put a mask on,” and warned her that she was endangering everyone. However, the remarks made Thomas angry she reportedly began yelling.

The surveillance footage shows Thomas walking towards Kagan, who lifts her cane to keep Thomas away. Thomas then reaches for the cane and violently tosses Kagan to the ground.

Thomas walks out of view for a few seconds and when she returns, Kagan sticks her leg out to trip Thomas, but Thomas ultimately walks away unharmed and leaves the store. 

Injuries and Charges 

Kagan was hospitalized after the attack and police said she left with a fractured left tibia that required surgery. However, Kagan later told ABC 7 she suffered a broken knee and required a steel plate to be put in. She also claims she’s been told by doctors that she won’t be able to put weight on her leg for seven to 10 weeks. 

As far as Thomas, police have charged her with second-degree aggravated assault and she was released on a summons pending a court appearance on August 24. In New Jersey, the charge is punishable by 5-10 years in jail, and fines as high as $150,000.

Hackensack police are encouraging anyone who witnessed the crime or have any information to reach out to them. 

See what others are saying: (ABC7) (NJ.com) (NBC News)

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Aurora Police Apologize for Drawing Weapons on Black Family in Mistaken Stop

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  • Police drew guns on a Black family in Aurora, Colorado on Sunday who they believed were in a stolen vehicle, ordering the group out of the car and facedown down on the ground. 
  • The passengers were girls between the ages of 6 and 17 and video shows them sobbing in fear during the incident, with at least two minors in handcuffs. 
  • The adult female driver was able to confirm that the car was not stolen and police explained that the car had the same plate information as a car reported stolen in a different state. They also blamed the mixup on the fact that the family’s car was reported stolen earlier this year, even though Aurora police returned it back to them a day later. 
  • The city’s new police chief apologized and offered them therapy resources. She also said officers followed protocol but should be allowed to use discretion to deviate in situations like this and has ordered her team to look at new training practices.

What Happened? 

Police in Aurora, Colorado apologized Monday for drawing weapons on a Black family after mistaking their car for another stolen vehicle. 

On Sunday, August 2, Brittney Gilliam decided to take her 6-year-old daughter, 12-year-old sister, and 14 and 17-year-old nieces out to get their nails done. Gilliam told CNN that her niece had just gotten back in the car after looking to see if the nail salon they wanted to go to was open. At this point, she and the girls were parked in a parking lot with the car turned off.

That’s when Aurora police pulled up behind the vehicle with guns drawn. Then, police allegedly yelled at the group to put their hands out of the window and get out of the car.

She said the family exited the vehicle and were told to lay face down on the ground. At that time, police handcuffed Gilliam, her 12-year-old sister, and 17-year-old niece. Gilliam claims that police would not explain why she was pulled over until she was handcuffed. Then, they pulled her away to verify her claim that the car was not stolen as the children remained on the ground. 

A bystander named Jennifer Wurtz began recorded the incident after the family was handcuffed. The footage is about 12 and a half minutes long, but a shorter minute in a half-second clip went viral on Twitter. That clip shows the minors facedown on the floor sobbing as police try to keep onlookers away.

Eventually, police sit the children up and in the longer video, Wurtz can be heard pressing the officers about why they had drawn guns on children. 

Police repeatedly asked her to stop interfering, however, they did say she had the right to film. Wurtz stopped pointing the phone towards the scene, but continued to criticize the stop and asked for the officers’ names.

As frustration from onlookers grew, one officer explained that this was a “high-risk stop” and that police were following procedure.

The onlookers were still angry about the policy being used against children and became angrier after learning that the car was in fact, not stolen. 

What Caused the Confusion? 

As far as what the mixup actually was, Gilliam explained that she had reported her car stolen in February, but that case was cleared up. In fact, her attorney told CNN that when her vehicle was stolen, it was actually returned to her the next day by Aurora police. 

In a statement late Monday, Intern Chief of Police Vanessa Wilson said that after the stop, police realized the car Gilliam was driving was not stolen. Instead, another vehicle with the same plate information but from a different state had been. The Associated Press reported that the vehicle was a motorcycle from Montana. 

In her statement, Wilson said “The confusion may have been due, in part, to the fact that the stopped car was reported stolen. After realizing the mistake, officers immediately unhandcuffed everyone involved, explained what happened and apologized.”

“I have called (Gilliam’s) family to apologize and to offer any help we can provide, especially for the children who may have been traumatized by yesterday’s events,” she continued. “I have reached out to our victim advocates so we can offer age-appropriate therapy that the city will cover.”

Outrage and Apology 

Still, that did little to put the community at ease, especially since the incident comes amid widespread frustration over how Black people are treated by police. Frustrations are especially high in Aurora, where police have faced security for the 2019 death of Elijah McClain. McClain was an unarmed Black man who was stopped by officers as he walked home after he was reported as a suspicious person in a ski mask. 

During the confrontation, officers placed him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with ketamine to sedate him. He then suffered a heart attack in the ambulance and was declared brain dead days later before being taken off life support. 

Just last month, two officers were fired for reenacting the chokehold in a photo near the memorial site for Elijah McClain A third officer was fired for not alerting supervisors about the photo while a fourth resigned before a disciplinary hearing about the incident. 

So this latest incident piled on the existing outrage against the local department and police policies in general. And many, including Gilliam, felt that the stolen car mixup did not justify how the young girls were treated. 

“That’s police brutality,” she told KUSA. “There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way. … You could have even told them, ‘Step off to the side let me ask your mom or your auntie a few questions so we can get this cleared up.’ ”

In her statement, Chief Wilson confirmed that a suspect in a stolen vehicle is a high-risk stop, and said officers followed procedures they are trained to carry out. However, she added that the department, “must allow our officers to have discretion and to deviate from this process when different scenarios present themselves.”

Wilson added that an internal investigation into this incident has been opened and said she had directed her team to look at new practices and training. Her promises to reexamine department practices are especially significant because that same Monday night, Aurora’s city council voted to make Wilson the city’s permanent police chief. 

See what others are saying: (Denver Post) (CNN) (Sentinel Colorado)

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