Many businesses in the Austin area have already announced they will not open May 1, citing safety concerns for both customers and employees, while some local establishments are ramping up operations to open that day.
Statewide worker protection groups spoke to Community Impact Newspaper about their concerns for employee safety following Abbott’s executive order.
The state’s plan, these groups contended, does not contain appropriate safety measures for employees returning to the workplace.
“We don’t think there is a lot of clarity for working people who are going to be asked to go back to their work premise,” said Ed Sills, communications director for the Texas AFL-CIO. “There are certainly some missing ingredients from [the executive order] that are necessary to not just assure the working people but the public that everything is being done to continue slowing the spread of the virus.”
Concerns over protective equipment
On April 27, Gov. Abbott released “The Governor’s Report to Open Texas,” a 66-page document with guidelines for business owners and the general public on how to maintain safety during the opening of the economy May 1.
The report provides checklists for retailers, restaurants and theaters to follow as they open their doors to customers. Restaurants, for example, must provide a hand-washing station at the entrance of their establishment, and no more than six people can sit at a table.
Furthermore, the report states employers must screen employees for symptoms of coronavirus before coming into their storefront or restaurant.
These checklists, however, do not contain government-mandated standards for personal protective equipment for businesses, Sill said. The report merely lists protective equipment as a suggestion and does not appear to require protective masks or gloves by state law.
“Consistent with the actions taken by many restaurants across the state, consider having all employees wear cloth face coverings (over the nose and mouth). If available, employees should consider wearing non-medical grade face masks,” reads the report for retailers, restaurants and movie theaters.
Sills said the Texas AFL-CIO has received complaints throughout the pandemic from workers that workplace conditions are unsafe. With more businesses opening May 1, Sills said he believes that trend may continue.
“Even with precautions, there are no guarantees. That is the concern out there: Even doing everything right, you have inevitable lapses in [social] distancing,” Sills said. “We’re concerned the PPEs are not at the level they’re going to [need to] be.”
Aaron Johnson, a staff attorney at the Equal Justice Center, said that employees asked to return to work May 1 should take stock of potential safety concerns with other employees and raise those concerns with their employers.
“Something that is healthy in workplaces is for workers to talk to each other and talk diplomatically and calmly to their employer,” Johnson said. “If a worker is retaliated against, fired or has their hours cut because they tried to discuss these matters, ... that is prohibited. That would be illegal, and [employees] are protected under federal law.”
Disproportionately affected communities
In Austin, public health data shows the coronavirus is affecting the city’s Hispanic or Latin American population at a disproportionately high rate that other ethnic groups.
According to Austin-Travis County figures, 46% of confirmed coronavirus cases are Hispanic residents, and that number has continued to climb over the past several weeks. This is despite the Hispanic or Latin American population representing just 34.3% of the city’s total population, according to U.S. Census data.
As businesses open May 1, Johnson and Sills both said they believe communities of color and low-income populations will continue to be at a higher risk of contracting coronavirus.
“The more aggressive you are, the higher risks you take [are] and the bigger impact that [makes] on those communities,” Johnson said.
Impact on unemployment
The Texas Restaurant Association released a report April 20 that estimates 688,000 restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed since the beginning of the shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the organization, that figure represents 61% of the 1.2 million Texans working for eating and drinking establishments across the state.
As restaurants begin to open back up across the state, some of those employees who lost work and wages in March and April may be brought back to work again.
Sills said the Texas AFL-CIO is concerned employees who may not want to return to work for personal safety reasons—whether they live with at-risk individuals, are at risk themselves or do not believe their workplace has sufficient safety standards—will lose their unemployment insurance as they decline to clock in.
“There is going to be a lot of pressure to return. We don’t know for sure what will happen,” Sills said. “If your employer says you have to go back and you’re not confident safety protocols are being followed, will you lose your unemployment insurance?”
As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the Texas Workforce Commission paid out more than $400 million in benefits from mid-March to mid-April.
Sills further said he believes there may be complications for workers who do contract COVID-19 while working to claim workers compensation from the state for their health issues.
“If you contract COVID-19, there is going to be a serious problem of proof whether it is contracted on the site of work or not,” Still said.