May 26, 2020

Protecting vulnerable workers

When it comes to amateur epidemiology these days, I think there are two kinds of people: those who know they’re not experts and those who don’t.

I’m in the former category.

Like millions of Americans and people around the world, I’d like for things to get back to some kind of normal, preferably a better normal than we had before. I miss seeing people face to face, going to libraries, social and family gatherings, visiting Taylor Books in search of the ever-elusive no-bake cookie, eating out, contact sports and all that.

But I don’t want a rushed return to “normal” if it means another spike in COVID-19 infections and fatalities, which is inevitable if restrictions are lifted too soon.

In Georgia, for example, moves to reopen led to a more than 40% spike in the coronavirus incidence rate, which represents the number of infections per 100,000 people, between April 21 and May 2. For some, that will mean death.

The Texas Tribune reported on May 14 the largest daily increase in COVID-19 infections and fatalities since the outbreak began, with 1,448 infections and 58 deaths. That state began the reopening process on April 17.

A reopening spike would hit West Virginia particularly hard. As has been widely reported, the Kaiser Family Fund found that we have the highest share of adults at risk of serious illness if infected, at the rate of 51% compared to a national average of 41%. That includes around 32% of people between ages 18 and 64, the prime working years.

One area that demands a careful approach is dealing with unemployment insurance. As of this writing, 143,149 West Virginians have filed for unemployment insurance since the outbreak. Some of those who are unemployed have compromised immune systems or live with someone who does. As things now stand, when their employers open, they will have to choose between risking health and life or losing unemployment benefits. Many of those who would have to make that decision are low-wage workers, with a disproportionate representation of women and African Americans.

Currently, immunocompromised people can be exempt from this dilemma with a doctor’s excuse. However, that could be a problem for people who are self-quarantining for health reasons — and for the estimated 60,000 West Virginians who have lost health insurance during the crisis or the more than 120,000 who didn’t have health coverage to start with.

According to federal Department of Labor guidelines, “Federal law would permit a state to determine whether the separation [from employment due to the outbreak] here is a quit or a discharge and whether the circumstances are allowable under the state’s good cause/just cause provisions. If permitted under the state’s good cause/just cause provision, states should consider how they will adjudicate the reasonableness of an individual’s separation for reasonable risk of exposure. One such factor could be considering if the individual is in a population that is particularly susceptible to COVID-19.”

In general, I think the Justice administration has done a good job of dealing with the outbreak. But I respectfully suggest that giving this matter more consideration isn’t a matter of playing politics or keeping people on unemployment forever. It’s about looking out for the lives of West Virginia’s working families.

(This ran as an op-ed in last week's Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

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