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As Iowa reopens, workers are being forced to choose between a paycheck and their health



It was perfect — until early March when Neider became increasingly alarmed by news reports documenting the spread of the novel coronavirus. A former smoker with high blood pressure and an allergy to mold, she was diagnosed last summer with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which makes her more vulnerable to colds and other respiratory ailments.

“I thought, if I get this, it could kill me,” she said.

At the time, the virus and the disease it causes, covid-19, had not yet been widely documented in Iowa, and Neider said her doctor was reluctant to write a note excusing her from work. When she asked if she could take an unpaid absence, her request was denied, but she was furloughed a few days later. Because she was laid off, she qualified for unemployment: $137 a week, after taxes.

Since then, Neider has rarely left her second-story apartment here off rural Highway 22.

Her daughter brings her groceries, meticulously wiping them down with disinfectant. On grocery day, Neider ties her keys to a long piece of string, which she carefully lowers from her balcony, allowing her daughter to unlock an outside entrance and leave the bag inside at her front door. Neider moved here to help care for her 6-month-old grandson, but she has seen him only twice in six weeks, from her balcony.

“I’m so terrified of getting sick that I have shut myself away,” Neider said. What has made her even more anxious in recent days is what she knows is coming: the call to go back to work.

“I need to work. I can’t afford not to,” she said. “But I am scared to death.”

Last week, Iowa joined a growing number of states that have started to reopen amid the pandemic. Although there was never an official statewide stay-at-home order, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) eased restrictions in 77 of the state’s 99 counties, allowing restaurants, gyms, churches and other businesses to open at limited capacity, even as coronavirus cases in the state continue to rise.

On Wednesday, Reynolds signed a public health order allowing the partial reopening of businesses beginning Friday in the state’s 22 remaining counties, including retail stores and enclosed shopping malls, as long as they operate at 50 percent capacity. The order covers some of the largest population centers in the state, including Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

The move comes as more than 200,000 Iowans have filed for unemployment in the past six weeks — the highest number reported since the Great Depression. The state has paid out more than $327 million in benefits since April 4, according to the governor’s office.

For some states, including Iowa, there is concern that some workers may choose not to return to work because they are earning more from unemployment benefits than they were on the job. While workers receive about half or less of their usual salary in regular unemployment benefits, they also receive a $600-a-week check as part of the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill signed by President Trump in March.

Reynolds has urged Iowans to return to their jobs, if they are available, arguing that reopening businesses can increase the speed to recovery amid the pandemic, even if the coronavirus threat continues. Like other officials around the country who have started to reopen their states, Reynolds has said Iowans will have to embrace a “new normal.”

“The reality is that we can’t stop the virus. It will remain in our communities until a vaccine is available,” Reynolds said in an op-ed published in the Des Moines Register. “We must learn to live with that, without letting it govern our lives.”

Critics have suggested the Reynolds administration was going too far by pushing furloughed Iowans back to work — pointing to provisions in state law that allow an exception for employees claiming “unsafe” or “detrimental” working conditions. Some, including former governor Chet Culver, a Democrat, have accused Reynolds of putting business interests ahead of the health and safety of the workforce.

“Any such ill-conceived scheme that deprives [workers] of choice and forces those hard-working, yet vulnerable, employees to report to unsafe workplace environments, while the positive incidences of COVID-19 infection are on the rise, is not merely penny-wise and pound foolish, it is just plain wrong,” Culver said in a letter to Reynolds last week urging her to reconsider the policy.

Iowa Workforce Development, which oversees the state’s unemployment system, has announced some exceptions to the policy, including for those who have been sickened by the coronavirus or have been advised by a doctor to self-quarantine because they face a higher risk of becoming ill.

But in a news conference last week, Beth Townsend, the department’s executive director, said the onus would be on workers to prove that their employment situation would put them at risk of getting sick. “It takes more than a mere assertion by the employee to establish this to be true,” she said.

If employers are following safety guidelines such as providing masks, gloves or other protective equipment or instituting social distancing guidelines, Townsend said, “it may be difficult to establish a good-faith basis to quit due to safety concerns.” She said those who choose not to return to work would be counted as a “voluntary quit” and lose their unemployment benefits.

In an unprecedented move, the state published an online form calling on businesses to report employees “who refuse to return to work without good reason or who quit their jobs as soon as possible.”

The decision means thousands of Iowans such as Neider could be forced to make an impossible choice: their livelihood or their health.

Neider acknowledged her current benefits exceed her usual income, but she said she would refuse the $600 a week in federal aid if it meant she had a job to return to when the risk associated with the pandemic is over.

“I’m not lazy. I’m scared,” Neider said. “I want to work. I’ve worked hard my whole life. And I’ll be happy to go to work when this is over. I just don’t understand this position we are being put in now.”

Even before the state urged residents to return to their jobs, attorneys at Iowa Legal Aid said, the nonprofit had received hundreds of phone calls on a special coronavirus hotline from workers inquiring about workplace safety and whether they had a legal right to stay home if they are scared about getting sick.

“It is the single most-asked question that we have had: ‘Do I have to go back to work if I don’t feel safe?’ ” said Alex Kornya, the group’s litigation director. “People have been worried about this since the beginning. [But] there’s no black-or-white answer to that question. … There’s no real clear set of guidelines.”

Workers who cite concerns about safety will have to make their claims before an administrator who will weigh issues on a case-by-case basis, examining what companies have done to protect their employees from an unprecedented disease that scientists are still trying to understand.

In Johnson County, there have been more than 500 positive cases of the novel coronavirus, with six deaths, according to the state health department. In Lone Tree, it’s unclear how many people, if any, have gotten sick.

What worries Neider is the unknown. “You hear rumors, but you just don’t know,” she said.

The town is about 20 miles from Columbus Junction, one of the state’s coronavirus hot spots, where at least 189 workers at a Tyson meatpacking plant tested positive for the virus, which later spread throughout the small community. But last weekend, many people even there were not wearing face masks or abiding by encouraged social distancing rules, even as the county remains under restrictions.

In gas stations across the region, including at Casey’s General Store, plexiglass shields have been installed to protect cashiers and other workers from customers. There are stickers and signs advising social distancing as well as new stringent cleaning procedures. But Neider worries that won’t stop people from getting too close and putting workers such as her in danger.

“I just don’t think people are taking this as seriously as they should,” she said. “They get close to you. They just don’t think about it.”

Standing on her balcony on a recent morning, she fretted over what to do. She had been saving money and cutting back on her already-meager expenses to prepare for the possibility of losing her job. She planned to ask her doctor again for a letter that might help her get a health-care waiver until the height of the pandemic passes. And she had been trying to come up with options other than working at the gas station to pay her rent, but in small-town Iowa, where the jobs are already scarce, there were limited options.

“I just don’t know what to do,” she said. “I can’t believe this is a choice I have to make.”

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