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As LA Businesses Reopen, Workers Face A Tough Choice: Risk Your Income -- Or Your Health?

The Busy Bee Diner in Ventura. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
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By Emily Guerin and David Wagner

Now that many businesses in L.A. can reopen after months of pandemic shutdown, employers say they're having difficulties getting their workers to come back.

Some say unemployment benefits, which have been more generous than usual, may be a factor.

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But most workers don't have a choice to stay on unemployment: If they are called back to work and they refuse, they risk losing their jobs -- and their benefits.

Many workers in L.A. say the real reason they're hesitant to go back has more to do with their health than their finances.


When Congress passed the CARES Act in March, it gave workers who lost their jobs an extra $600 per week on top of their usual state unemployment benefits.

Because of this, nearly 70% of workers made more money on unemployment than they did working, according to University of Chicago researchers.

In California, the median worker received 141% of their salary in unemployment benefits, according to the study's co-author Peter Ganong. Lower wage workers, in particular, made far more on unemployment than they made while working.

Many business owners we talked to suspected this was why their employees were turning down work.

"That extra $600 bonus they may be getting is probably sounding better than going back to work," said Adriana Cortés, whose family owns two restaurants in South L.A.: Delicious Southern Cuisine and Delicious at the Dunbar.

But that's not how unemployment actually works.


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If workers refuse to go back to work, California's unemployment system can cut them off -- unless they meet certain criteria laid out during the pandemic, such as being over the age of 65 or having certain health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

Moreover, a recent paper from the Brookings Institution found there's no indication people are rejecting calls to return to work because they're making too much on unemployment.

But some workers are deciding not to go back to their jobs. Why?


For Katie Thompson, it was the mounting anxiety over contracting a potentially fatal illness.

She no longer had a safe means of transportation to her retail job at a Madewell store in Pasadena. And she was worried about the possibility of getting infected on the job. Ultimately, she quit.

"It just didn't feel worth it," Thompson said.

A Madewell spokesperson sent us a link to the company's website detailing its new in-store safety measures, including social distancing, required mask-wearing and increased sanitization.

Thompson doesn't blame her employer for allowing shoppers back in the store. But she does think L.A. County moved too quickly in allowing retailers to reopen.

"If you sell things and they say, 'Go ahead, you can open,' I get it. I understand why they felt like they needed to open," Thompson said. "But I just wasn't willing to be sacrificed at that altar."


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Thompson understood that quitting meant she would lose her unemployment benefits. But because she'd been making more on unemployment than while she was on the job, she was able to save enough to feel comfortable not working for a while. And she knows she's lucky: her husband is still working, which provides some financial security.

"It could be a mistake in that I have to leave L.A. in six to nine months if I can't find a new job," Thompson said.

But seeing coronavirus cases rise so dramatically, she feels like she made the right call.


Others say they have no choice but to keep working.

In March, Jennifer Payton got laid off from her job doing catering for Panera Bread. Then she got called back in May. She came in, even though she would've preferred to stay safe at home.

"Sure you have a choice to return to work," Payton said. "But your choice is to risk getting a deadly virus or risk getting evicted and not being able to feed yourself. And that's really not much of a choice."

Payton said Panera Bread has decent guidelines for workplace safety. But she said in the stores where she works, including a location in Santa Ana, people don't always follow them.

The company has not received a formal complaint from the Santa Ana store, but "we will be investigating this internally and ensuring all of our associates feel safe and supported in the workplace," a Panera Bread spokeswoman wrote in an email. "Any instance of our safety protocols not being met is taken very seriously and addressed immediately."

The company's safety precautions include "regular wellness checks, mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing," the spokeswoman added.

Payton is now only working a day or two each week, earning much less than when she was fully unemployed.

"I don't want to make just barely enough to cover my bills while putting my health and possibly my life on the line," she said. "That's just kind of ludicrous to ask a person."


A sign at a Little Tokyo market reminds costumers to wear face masks. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Workers should make sure their employer is actually allowed to be open, and that they're complying with government safety guidelines. If they're not, employees can refuse to work.

But under California's unemployment system, generalized concerns over workplace safety aren't enough to stay home and continue collecting unemployment benefits.

"As a condition of eligibility for unemployment, you have to be available and willing to work," said UC Berkeley law professor Catherine Fisk.

But she said workers can wield significant power over their working conditions by banding together.

"The law has been clear for 60 years at least that if a group of workers decide together that it is unsafe to work, then they are free to refuse to work until the employer rectifies the situation," Fisk said.


For business owners who say they've done everything to make their workplace safe, employees' reluctance to return can be frustrating.

Heather Jeffcoat owns three physical therapy practices in L.A. County. She treats people with chronic pain, so she stayed open throughout the stay-at-home orders. She did let her receptionists work from home for a few weeks. But in mid-May, she decided she needed them back.

Jeffcoat said they were hesitant to return, and when she asked why, they wouldn't give specifics.

"There was just this vague sense of like, 'I don't feel safe, I haven't even left the house, my family hasn't left the house, I'm not even going to the grocery store,'" Jeffcoat said. "It's all stuff that has nothing to do with the workplace."

Understanding that no workplace is 100% safe, Jeffcoat said she modified her reception area for social distancing, gave everyone masks and installed plexiglass shields.

"I have been compliant with CDC, state and city guidelines," she wrote in an all-staff email on June 3. "I have provided you with the proper PPE to keep you safe and our patients safe. I was fortunate to obtain enough sanitizing products to keep our clinic safe for all."

Jeffcoat declined to put us in touch with her receptionists. But she said despite her reassurances, they were still unwilling to return to work.

"At some point the fact that they have a personal fear of COVID is no longer the employer's problem, because I've made my workplace as safe as I can given the situation," she said.

"We are not responsible for your personal feeling of safety," Jeffcoat said. "We are just responsible for making the workplace safe."

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