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Scared To Return To Work Or Can't With Kids At Home? Here's What You Need To Know


A lot of people who work at restaurants, hair salons and other close-contact-type jobs are scared that they'll get sick as businesses start to reopen. Others say they can't work because their kids' schools are still closed. As a result, these people would rather stay on unemployment. So what options do workers have? Here's NPR's Chris Arnold.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Lindsey is a waitress in Iowa who's been out of work for two months. But this week, the pub-style restaurant that she waited tables at is reopening.

LINDSEY: I don't feel comfortable going back yet. I don't feel comfortable at all. I don't think that there's any way with people eating food, not having masks on, with servers having to touch their plates and their silverware, there's just absolutely no way to keep the servers safe.

ARNOLD: Lindsey says her restaurant's setting up increased hand-washing and disinfecting rules and spacing the tables 6 feet apart, but she doesn't think that that's enough. We're only using her first name because she's worried about losing her job. And she just feels like it's too early for restaurants to reopen.

LINDSEY: I believe that restaurants are one of the most unsafe places, I mean, obviously, other than the very essential jobs. And that's the thing, is that restaurants aren't as essential. If we can do delivery and takeout, that's totally fine. But it's insane to put yourself in that sort of risk category just so you can walk people their food to their table.

ARNOLD: Also, she sees younger people not social distancing, even having keg parties and not wearing masks, and she worries that those same people will come into the restaurant. Still, if your employer offers you your job back and you refuse it, generally speaking, you are not supposed to be able to keep collecting unemployment. But there are exceptions and strategies that workers should know about.

Andrew Stettner is a worker protection expert at the progressive think tank The Century Foundation. He says, for people like Lindsey, the best place to start is by talking to your employer.

ANDREW STETTNER: And say, you know what? I don't feel comfortable coming back right now. But maybe, in two weeks, I might feel comfortable once you've got everything rolling, we know how this is all working out. Can I wait?

ARNOLD: And if your employer says, OK sure, I can't even bring everybody back in anyway, then your unemployment benefits won't stop. That's something that any worker can try. But beyond that, some workers have special protections.

MICHELE EVERMORE: My big concern is that most workers don't understand their rights here.

ARNOLD: Michele Evermore is with the nonprofit National Employment Law Project. She says if you have a medical condition - like, say, diabetes, heart disease, an immune deficiency - and your doctor advises against going to work during the pandemic, Congress voted to let people in that situation collect unemployment.

EVERMORE: If you have an underlying condition, first, contact your employer and explain why you can't return to work and then explain to the state agency why you can't report to work, and you should be eligible to remain on unemployment assistance.

ARNOLD: Evermore says the decision is made by the state unemployment office. She says a letter from a doctor should help. Then there's the problem of parents who are stuck because they can't do their job from home but they also can't return to work because they don't have child care. Congress approved help for them, too.

Chai Feldblum is a lawyer with Morgan Lewis in D.C. She advises businesses as they reopen. And she says she tells many employers to consider letting those parents not return to work.

CHAI FELDBLUM: If someone is unable to work because of child care needs, because they - school, place of care has closed, then that person is eligible for unemployment.

ARNOLD: She says some people may be eligible for paid leave in addition to the unemployment benefits. But, she says - getting back to the safety issue - just feeling unsafe, that's not enough to stay on unemployment.

FELDBLUM: No. If you're just scared about going to work, you have to go to work in order to get paid.

ARNOLD: Stettner and Evermore say, though, if your workplace is not taking the basic safety precautions that similar businesses in the area are and you can document that, you might qualify to refuse to go back to that job and stay on unemployment.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.