As thousands of Alabamians return to work this week, an Alabama nonprofit has joined hundreds of organizations nationwide in a call for federal guidance to protect workers from having to return to jobs that don’t take proper precautions against the spread of COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on communities of color, disproportionately claiming the lives of far more Black, Latinx and indigenous people at rates far higher than for white people, and resulting in far more layoffs of those employed in the service sector and other jobs that cannot be done from home and do not offer paid sick leave or other benefits,” according to a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor on Tuesday and signed by Alabama Arise, a Montgomery nonprofit that advocates for the poor.
The letter calls for the federal government to issue new guidance clarifying that workers are not disqualified for unemployment insurance (UI) or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) if they refuse to work at jobs that do not comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on reducing the spread of the disease in the workplace.
Currently, the U.S. Labor Department’s statements on the matter conflict with federal unemployment insurance laws and don’t include mention of the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines, the letter states.
The CDC’s guidelines on how employers can prevent the spread of the virus include precautions such as social distancing and the wearing of face masks.
“The guidance also clarifies that certain workers, including older workers, immunocompromised workers, and workers with comorbid conditions such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease, are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19,” the letter reads. “They should be given the right to refuse to return to work given their heightened health risks, and still be allowed to collect UI or PUA.”
Gov. Kay Ivey on May 8 announced that Alabama would ease restrictions beginning May 11 allowing restaurants, bars, barbers shops, gyms and salons to reopen with social-distancing restrictions.
The number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Alabama surpassed 10,000 and the death toll reached 400 on Monday, when Ivey’s changes went into effect. As of Wednesday there were 10,700 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alabama, 1,317 hospitalizations of coronavirus patients and 450 deaths.
Public health officials and physicians have expressed concern that there’s still community spread of the virus, and Alabama still isn’t testing nearly enough people to conduct the sort of isolation and contact tracing to reduce coronavirus’s advance.
“The numbers continue to climb,” Alabama’s chief medical officer, Dr. Mary McIntyre, said Wednesday. “The numbers are not decreasing. Our numbers continue to go up.”