Workers weigh options as businesses reopen and they face possible COVID-19 exposure

Posted at 12:40 PM, Jun 19, 2020

As the economy slowly reopens, Americans are still filing for unemployment at record rates. For some, staying off the job makes more sense than returning to work.

“I’m one of those teachers at high risk,” said Patty Candelaria, a teacher in Austin, Texas. “I’ve had open heart surgery three times. I’m concerned because we can’t predict the future.”

She just completed her 20th year of teaching.

“I’ve never felt so afraid to be face to face with students and worrying about what germs we’re all carrying,” she said.

Candelaria has been teaching summer school from her virtual home classroom. She’s concerned to go back to school in the fall if she’s forced to be there in person.

“Those classrooms are germ factories on the best day,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association. “No one wants those public schools open more than the people who love those kids and work in those schools. But we want them open safely.”

“I feel like it’s our district’s responsibility to protect,” Candelaria said.

She’s not alone. From rideshare drivers to teachers and flight attendants, workers are having to consider many factors before returning to work.

“I think it’s quite scary to go back to work if your employer hasn't put the appropriate safeguards in place,” said Peter Ganong, an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Ganong has been studying the impact of unemployment insurance.

“We found that it did quite well in the sense that it has replaced all of the lost income for people who have lost their jobs, and then some above and beyond that as well,” he said.

Payouts are usually low to encourage people to apply for jobs, but the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act changed that.

“What the federal government did is it said, ‘We’re going to add an extra $600 per week to everyone's UI benefits, and that was designed and intended to raise up everyone’s benefits precisely because there are no jobs available in many places,” Ganong explained.

That’s exactly what happened to flight attendant Brittany Horn.

“I am on unemployment,” Horn said. “A lot of our regular routes were cut and so there were just too many flight attendants and not enough flying.”

“Most of the junior flight attendants probably are making more on unemployment,” she explained. “But it also depends on how many hours you work.”

Across multiple industries, this has been a discussion. Unemployed workers are making more on unemployment than they did working their jobs. That brought fairness into question.

“If you're a janitor and you work at the hospital, you're getting the same pay as before and you’re facing increased risk at your job,” Gangong said. “If you're a janitor and you're at a school, you're going to get paid 40 to 50% more on UI benefits than you were getting when you were working.”

Ganong estimates about two thirds of unemployed workers have benefits that are greater than their prior wage. But that will soon change. As businesses start opening back up, that option won’t be available for many.

“If your employer calls you back to work, even if your UI benefits are higher than your prior wage, you're required to go back to work or you'll lose your benefits,” Ganong said.

Under the CARES Act, that higher level of benefits is set to expire July 31.

Brittany’s three-month voluntary leave comes to an end in August.

“If the flights don’t start picking up significantly, because right now with the CARES Act, we can’t get furloughed. But starting in October, that’s when technically we could. So, I think everyone’s keeping their hopes up that we are able to continue working come October,” Horn said.

And Candelaria is awaiting a decision from the district on what going back to school looks like, before factoring in her health concerns.

“None of us want it, so that’s why we’re staying safe at home and building classrooms in homes,” she said.