Submitted by Meghan Simons
With Nevada re-entering some vestige of the new normal under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, some previously furloughed workers have begun to panic.
High-risk workers began to wonder about their imminent recalls to work. If a restaurant employee has asthma and refuses to return to work due to their increased risk of COVID-19, will their unemployment benefits be terminated? If a 67-year-old retail worker chooses not to return to work, will their benefits end?
In short, maybe.
Under state regulations governing unemployment, refusal to accept suitable work without good cause when offered means a recipient loses benefits. While a person can appeal their benefit termination, their benefits will be held temporarily, and the only direction is that “the Administrator shall consider the degree of risk involved to the person’s health [and] safety…”
Shall is a tricky word. It’s not a guarantee. If an employee refuses to return to work, their job is likely gone. Should an employee lose their appeal, they will lose their benefits and be forced to hunt for a job during a pandemic. Refusing to return is a gamble many high-risk, low-income Renoites may not be willing to make.
A quick perusal of Governor Steve Sisolak’s Facebook page shows the news of Nevada’s reopening under Phase One of the Nevada United Roadmap to Recovery was met with both celebration and fear by constituents. Reno’s local businesses have been quick to reassure customers they will be following social distancing, limiting numbers of patrons, requiring masks, sanitizing, etc.
However, if Reno follows national trends, there won’t be a stampede downtown any time soon. In a May 8 Ipsos/ABC News Poll 64 percent of Americans say opening the country now isn’t worth losing more lives, and only 15 percent of Americans say they’ll venture out if the economy opens. And only about half of those who wish to reopen the economy and participate in it say they’re concerned about them or their loved ones catching COVID-19.
A closer look at the numbers tells a bleak story. Of non-white Americans, 84 percent said reopening isn’t worth losing lives, with 72 percent of women saying the same. In Reno, the demographics of the low-wage workforce line up with those most concerned about reopening the economy at the expense of fellow citizens.
Business owners in Reno face a difficult decision: Recall their entire staff to operate a potentially empty restaurant, salon, or store, while possibly placing them at a higher risk of COVID-19 if their customer base does not continue to take the pandemic seriously; or, choose not to reopen and risk financial ruin, but protect their workers while waiting to see if rates of new cases begin to rise in Washoe County. Both options are a devil’s bargain.
In reality, many Nevadans will not return to work until Phase Three. Even if a place of business reopens, it is unlikely to return to full staffing and payroll simply due to the fact that business will be artificially slow under the best of circumstances now. Many employees are eager to get back to work because they have yet to receive unemployment benefits of any kind.
We’re in an unprecedented situation radically different than anything we’ve faced. Therefore, we must adopt radical solutions.
First, Sisolak should immediately mirror our fellow Western States Pact members (no, not California) in adopting an executive order through Phase Three to ensure no high-risk Nevadan is kicked off of unemployment benefits for prioritizing their personal safety over economic security. Colorado has already allowed some residents to remain on unemployment who would’ve normally seen benefit terminations. This would be consistent with the Sisolak’s directive that vulnerable populations should stay at home until the outbreak subsides.
Second, work search requirements must be waived and the eviction moratorium continued until Nevada enters Phase Three. Casinos are unlikely to reopen until Phase Three begins, and with the casino industry employing much of Reno’s population, it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to adhere to social distancing and suggested directives for safety when large groups of people are seeking work. Similarly, without continuing the eviction moratorium into Phase Three, landlords will be able to evict a whole industry’s worth of people en masse – not to mention self-employed and independent contractors who haven’t been able to file for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program in Nevada yet.
Finally, and it may take a special legislative session to do this, administrative and punitive holds and disqualifications that are a year old or more halting UI payments must be cleared expeditiously without adjudication, and amnesty must be granted to Nevadans who filed UI initial claims between March 15 and May 2 to expedite payment, period. Stop the endless queues and give claims adjudicators a chance to catch up. Expand the claim centers’ operating hours to 24/7 as soon as feasible. Establish a better phone tree to direct calls to those with specialized training, instead of expecting claim adjudicators to quickly handle everything that may go wrong with a claim. Unemployment laws and regulations are maddeningly intricate.
The most compassionate thing we can do for small business owners and workers alike is to grant them the ability to make an informed choice and not one borne of desperation. No barista job is worth risking one’s life over, but without profuse and continued support from our elected officials, that’s the choice many at-risk Renoites face this week.
Meghan Simons lives in Reno and is a professional specializing in the treatment of substance use disorders. Previously, she worked for political candidates as a communications consultant and field operative. She is a single mom of twins and has written on politics for over a decade. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her kids, wandering Reno, and hiking on Mt. Rose from a respective social distance. Any opinions expressed here are her own and are not to be taken as those of any employers, groups, or professional boards with whom she is affiliated.
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