I’m back at work and I don’t feel safe. What can I do?

As the Philadelphia region approaches the “green” phase, where businesses can reopen under certain restrictions, many workers — largely those employed in service industries — are being called back to work.
But many of those being called back is concerned about health, safety, and other conditions on the job, just as essential workers experienced during the most restrictive phases of the city’s lockdown.
The top-level takeaway, according to lawyers and worker advocates, is this: While there are safety guidelines from the city, state, and federal government that businesses are required to follow, enforcement of these guidelines is spotty and not always reliable.
Your best bet is to talk with your coworkers, raise your concerns with your employer, and ask for better conditions. In other words, organize. Many workers have the legal right to do this — and even if you’re not protected by law, organizers say there’s a case to be made that this moment when workers across the country have risen up to call for safer pandemic working conditions, is a form of protection in and of itself.
“Your workplace would not be able to run without you and your coworkers,” said KB Brower, organizing director for labor organization Bargaining for the Common Good. “So when you come together, you have the power to hold the boss accountable.”
Here’s what you need to know.

I’m being called back to work but I’m worried about safety. What should I do?

Ask your employer what measures they’re taking to keep workers safe and tell them what you’d need to make you feel safe at work.
It’s best to put this in writing, so you have a record of your ask, said Nadia Hewka, an attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
Hewka recommends speaking with your coworkers, as there are safety and power in numbers.

What guidelines are businesses required to follow?

These are just some of the measure that businesses may be required to follow, as per an order from Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine:
  • disinfect high-touch surfaces
  • stagger work stop and start times to prevent big crowds from forming
  • conduct meetings or training virtually
  • provide masks to employees and require them to be worn at the worksite
  • limit occupancy and follow social distancing guidelines
  • establish protocols around what to do if an employee tests positive

My employer isn’t following those guidelines. What can I do?

You have a few options.
If you work in Philadelphia, you can report your employer to 311. The city says it has been looking into these complaints. You could also report your employer to Pa. Department of Health at 1-877-PA-HEALTH (1-877-724-3258) or to the police if you feel safe doing that. You could also file a complaint to OSHA, but the agency has not had a good track record of handling these complaints. Ultimately, it’s not clear that reporting your employer will get you results.
That’s why lawyers and organizers recommend talking with your coworkers about your concerns and raising them to management as a collective. Put your ask in writing so there’s a record.
You have the right to health and safety on the job regardless of your immigration status. If you’re an employee (and not an independent contractor), you also have the right to get together with your coworkers and ask for better working conditions under a federal law called the National Labor Relations Act — regardless of your immigration status. This law says that workers can’t be retaliated against for trying to improve their working conditions.
Philadelphia’s City Council is also considering a law that will make it illegal to retaliate against workers who raise coronavirus safety concerns.

If I refuse to work for safety reasons, can I still get unemployment benefits?

If you have “good cause” for turning down work — and that could be safety concerns — you should still be able to get benefits, Hewka said. You’ll have to prove that, though, which is why you should document efforts to raise your safety concerns. If you filed a complaint to any of the agencies listed above, you can also use that as part of your documentation.
It’s important to note that since this is an unprecedented and evolving situation, it’s possible you’ll have issues getting unemployment benefits if you turn down work for safety reasons.

My coworkers and I discussed our concerns. What now?

You could start by writing a letter to your boss asking for better conditions. Brower, of Bargaining for the Common Good, said the most important thing is to get a majority of your coworkers on board.
“They can ignore one person,” she said. “They can’t ignore a majority of the employees.”
If you have colleagues who are more fearful of retaliation — undocumented workers, for example — Hewka recommends that those who may have more power (whether that’s through immigration status, standing at work, or job title) try to take a more prominent role.
If that doesn’t work, you can take further action, said Mindy Isser, a Philadelphia labor organizer.
You could:
  • Circulate a petition (try Coworker.org).
  • Organize a rally with the support of the community or other labor groups.
  • Organize a work stoppage.
  • Go public through social media.
Brower suggests reaching out to experienced organizers who could help you think through a plan that works. That could be a union that focuses on your sector — AFSCME District 1199c for health care service workers, for example, or PASNAP for nurses and techs. Or it could be a worker advocacy organization, as one of these:

I’m not being called back or I’m being called back with lower pay. Do I have any rights?

If you’re not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, the answer is likely no. There is no law requiring employers to call you back, even if you worked at the company for decades. There is also no law requiring that you get paid the same rate as before.
This could be another issue to organize with your coworkers, said attorney Rhiannon DiClemente of Community Legal Services. Workers in Philly have been organizing around this issue and going public when their employer doesn’t call them back.
If your employer is calling back only specific employees (for example, only young people and not older people), DiClemente said that could be in violation of antidiscrimination laws.
You can call Community Legal Services with more questions at 215-981-3700.
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