President Donald Trump wants workers to be “warriors” willing to risk their lives returning to their jobs, even though officials in his own administration fear a coronavirus resurgence if people let up on social distancing.
Trump can’t force states to reopen, and he can’t force people to go out to restaurants. But he does have some leverage over workers.
Congress created expansive new unemployment benefits that Trump’s Department of Labor, in concert with state workforce agencies, is trying to withhold from people who won’t return to their jobs ― even if it’s not safe.
Kristina Kozak of Salt Lake City started receiving unemployment benefits in April after she was furloughed from her job at REI. This month, with stores reopening in a limited capacity, the company asked her to come back. But she has asthma, upper respiratory issues and a compromised immune system due to a rare form of lipodystrophy that causes problems with her internal organs. Going back as the pandemic continues seemed like a risk.
“Any sickness I get goes right to my chest,” said Kozak, 46. “I tend to get a lot sicker than other people.”
She said she called the Utah Department of Workforce Services and explained her health problem but was still told she’d probably lose benefits if she refused the job. The agency sent a form for her health care provider to fill out to document her health problems. But they said they needed it back by May 31, and she couldn’t get a medical appointment until June 3.
Now she’s trying to decide whether to take medical leave, which would allow her to keep her health insurance but with substantially less income, or to return to work and risk exposure to the coronavirus. The other option would be to quit the job and lose her health insurance and probably also her unemployment benefits.
Her attempts to get ahold of anyone at the state office who might be better able to clarify her options have been unsuccessful.