May 13, 2020

They'll stone you when you're trying to be so good...

WV Governor Jim Justice's COVID-19 press conferences can be pretty unpredictable, but it was truly weird yesterday to see him basically lose his temper when asked by a reporter about a sign-on letter that several groups (including AFSC) sent about unemployment insurance for vulnerable workers and/or family members. You can view his rant here. And here's the news article written by the reporter.

(Short version: he pretty much says the groups want everyone to be on unemployment forever--not true--and that the same people wanted to let dangerous murderers and such out of prison--also not true.)

Here's the response of those who sent the letter:

As Governor Justice often reminds us, West Virginia has the largest share of its population in the country who is at risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19. The governor has been a leader in protecting vulnerable populations throughout this crisis, and it’s disappointing to hear him dismiss the concerns around continuing to protect these populations as the state begins to reopen. Among the groups that signed onto this letter are frontline service and health workers, communities of color, and disability rights groups, all of whom represent populations that are themselves at elevated risk or who have family members at risk of serious illness due to underlying medical conditions. 
The governor has the authority and the obligation to protect at-risk workers from being forced into work situations which put them at significant risk of coming into contact with COVID-19. West Virginia code states that a person is not disqualified for unemployment insurance benefits if they leave their employment for health reasons, including a condition that could be worsened or aggravated by work. We’re also asking for more transparency out of WorkForce WV, including that the agency publicly release the conditions their office is using to determine suitable work during the COVID-19 crisis.
Our intention is to work with the Justice Administration and WorkForce WV to ensure that at-risk workers are not forced to choose between their health and their finances. Public health is not a political issue.  
 A weird thing about all this is that nobody was looking to pick a fight with the Justice administration. In fact, most of those who signed on have been generally supportive of his approach..

The fact remains that reopening will expose vulnerable people to infection and possible death. Then there's this: as Sean O'Leary with the WV Center on Budget and Policy points out, federal guidelines explicitly allow for these factors to be taken into consideration as state's consider reopening and unemployment insurance options. None of which involves what Justice referred to as "playing politics."

At least we know now that someone reads these things...

May 12, 2020

Back to work?

Like most people I know, I'd like things to get back to normal...preferably a better normal than the one we had before the outbreak. However, the rush to reopen could mean a spike in infections and even fatalities.

AFSC in WV was proud to sign on to this letter to Governor Jim Justice and key members of his administration. There's a lot to it, but the main point is that when businesses reopen, many people with compromised immune systems--or who live with those who do--will have to choose between losing unemployment insurance or risking life and health. Those workers most at risk of this are disproportionately low wage earners, women and African Americans.

The letter makes several recommendations, the most important of which are that the administration:

*Confirm that individuals with health conditions that put them at risk for complications due to COVID-19 are entitled to unemployment benefits if they leave or turn down work that risks exposure.

*Allow individuals who live with at-risk individuals to continue to collect unemployment if they turn down or leave work that risks exposure.

It's a pretty radical idea: just this once, let's pretend that human life is more important than squeezing every drop of profit out of the labor of low wage workers.