As more businesses in Tennessee begin to reopen, many workers are now weighing a difficult choice: Should they stay home without a paycheck, or should they go back to work to a place where they might be exposed to the virus — and potentially make less than they did on unemployment?
That’s been the case for Debra Sandow, who bartends at a downtown Nashville hotel while going to school full-time for a business degree. She was furloughed in early April, and between state and federal unemployment benefits, she’s currently making more than her regular average salary.
So now that the restaurant is reopening, she’s hesitant to head back to work. Her gut tells her that customers aren’t going to come flocking back anytime soon, and she also doesn’t want to expose herself to the virus.
“Who’s going to be financially liable for me?” Sandow says. “You’re asking me to go out there on the front lines to bring in money to your company where I may or may not get a tip and I may or may not get sick. I’m not going to be someone’s science experiment for $3.25 an hour.”
Sandow says management has given employees the option to remain on leave if they feel unsafe. But the issue is, if she stays home now that she’s been offered work, she’s likely to lose her unemployment income.
A recent press release from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development warns against refusing work. If someone decides not to return once an employer has made the offer, they can be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits — both the state-administered aid and the additional $600 per week from the federal CARES Act.
And apprehension over COVID-19 exposure does not qualify someone to refuse work, says Annelies Goger, who studies workforce safety net programs at the Brookings Institution.
“I’m worried that workers may think, ‘Oh, I can just stay home when they call me back because I don’t feel safe.’ And that’s legally not the case,” Goger says. “You have to meet one of the specific criteria that are in the CARES Act to continue receiving unemployment insurance if your employer calls you back.”
The Tennessee Department of Labor spells out two situations that allow for remaining on leave: if you’re quarantined by the government or a medical professional, or if you don’t have childcare because of COVID-19.
But every claim will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. And to make matters more confusing, Goger says each state is evaluating the criteria slightly differently — part of the challenge of implementing a new, complex program in the middle of a crisis.
“I really have utmost compassion for both, for employers and for workers,” Goger says. “If it were me, I’m not sure if I would go back to a job, even if I would lose benefits, if it means that I’m putting my life at risk or someone that I’m living with.”
Employers, too, have to make many of the same decisions. They have their own physical and financial health to consider, as well as those of their staff and their customers.
‘Just Not Feasible’
Yuriko Say, who owns the East Nashville restaurant Peninsula, says safety is a big concern.
“In a functioning, busy restaurant, it’s impossible to keep everything perfectly pristine at all times. It’s just not feasible,” she says.
But part of her calculus is also monetary. Phase 1 of the Nashville mayor’s plan allows for restaurants to operate at 50% seating capacity. As a small, specialty restaurant, that allows them only 14 seats.
It’s not enough to make ends meet, Say says. “I think it’s better to wait longer, as excruciating and difficult as this is.”
Peninsula is staying closed until at least Phase 3, when the restaurant can allow for more seating. Because of that, its staff can remain on unemployment for a while.
But for workers at restaurants that are reopening, like Debra Sandow, it just comes to making a personal choice. So she’s decided to turn in her two week’s notice at the hotel, take a job in sales while she earns her business degree — and work toward a new career path.