As Maine gradually reopens the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, labor advocates warn some workers will be presented with a devastating choice: put themselves in potential danger or risk losing their livelihood.

A rising number of workers have contacted the Maine AFL-CIO, scared that they won’t be adequately protected in the workplace and could contract coronavirus and bring it home to vulnerable family members, said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the state’s largest organized labor group.

People temporarily laid off from businesses that shut down in the early days of the pandemic hitting Maine may be forced off unemployment insurance benefits if they refuse a suitable offer of work when their places of employment reopen.

“There are a large number of workers who are deeply fearful and concerned about going back to work,” Schlobohm said. “No worker should have to choose between their job and their health and their family’s health.”

Randi Kirshbaum, a longtime Portland radio personality, said last month that she was fired from her job as a program manager with Portland Radio Group after she refused to return to her office, citing health concerns about exposure to coronavirus. Hundreds more workers that have declined to come back have their cases under review by the Maine Department of Labor.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 have been reported in a number of non-health care workplaces, including seafood and meat processing plants in Portland, a factory in Auburn and a construction site in Augusta. Thousands of workers at Bath Iron Works stopped coming to work in April because they feared spread of the virus at the shipyard.

Labor advocates worry that as public-facing businesses such as restaurants and hotels reopen, more workers will be forced into workplaces without proper protection and will risk exposure and sickness because they cannot afford to miss a paycheck.

“I think there is a very widespread dynamic where workers know they are going back into a workplace that is not as safe as it should or could be. We need better options for them,” Schlobohm said.

More than two months ago, the Legislature passed emergency expansions to the unemployment system that granted exceptions to normal rules for workers laid off because of the pandemic.

The expansion allowed workers temporarily laid off to collect unemployment benefits without looking for another job, a key requirement in normal times. But they also have to stay in contact with their employer and could risk losing benefits if they refuse to go back to work when the business reopens.

There are complicated exceptions to that general rule. When workers refuse suitable employment, the Labor Department conducts individual fact-finding interviews to determine if their circumstance merits receiving continued jobless benefits, said spokeswoman Jessica Picard. The department has scheduled about 355 of those interviews, she added.

Some people, including those who have COVID-19, are caring for a sick family member or are the primary caregiver for a child who cannot attend school or child care because of the pandemic, can keep jobless benefits through a federal expansion of the unemployment insurance system.

The department’s determination may “depend upon the circumstances of the particular workplace, such as if the work being offered can be done from home, or whether the employer is taking steps to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure,” Picard said.

But if the department finds an offer of suitable work was made, and there is no valid reason to refuse it, the person will no longer receive unemployment benefits. Workers and employers can appeal department decisions through state administrative procedures and the courts.

Workers’ rights in Maine were weak to begin with, and the pandemic has only made the situation worse, said David Webbert, a labor attorney with Johnson, Webbert and Young in Portland.

Even though legal cases claiming workers are being put in unsafe conditions and should not have to return to work can be tough to win, Webbert said such cases are worth making with scientific evidence. Employees at businesses with lots of customer interaction, such as dine-in restaurants, could make a persuasive case that they are at particular risk of virus exposure, he said.

“I wouldn’t give up, I would try to cite CDC guidelines,” he said. “Your health depends on what everyone in your bubble has been doing. If your bubble is everyone that walks in the door, that’s hazardous.”

Maine’s phased reopening approach includes checklists and guidelines businesses are meant to follow for sanitation and physical distancing. The state believes businesses initially out of compliance with those rules were assumed not to have done so purposely. But repeated and continued noncompliance can be penalized by license suspension, fines and other sanctions, said Department of Economic and Community Development spokeswoman Kate Foye.

“We have been impressed and grateful for the level of compliance among businesses, which underscores their commitment to protecting themselves, their employees, and their customers,” Foye said.

People want to get back to work, not stay at home on unemployment benefits, said Schlobohm, of the Maine AFL-CIO. But Maine needs to do more to make sure workers aren’t retaliated against if they feel unsafe.

Broadly, he’d like to see more appreciation for low-wage workers putting their health and safety on the line for customers, Schlobohm said.

“People are seeing workers differently. That needs to extend into this next phase of things; workers need more of a role in every aspect of the so-called reopening process,” he said. “In general, workers need more protection and power in the workplace right now. That is good for public health, it is good for economic revival.”

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