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Yesterday, Public Health Madison & Dane County announced the implementation of a county-wide reopening plan called Forward Dane. It went into effect today and removed travel restrictions, opened tennis and disc golf courses, allowed businesses to prepare to reopen, and removed any criminal penalty for violating the county’s stay-at-home order. Dane County executive Joe Parisi told WKOW yesterday that it resembles the current statewide plan, but adapted for local use.
“It’ll be similar, but it’ll be specific to Dane County,” said Parisi. “Because, given the fact that we’re a different population, a smaller population, a different circumstance than the statewide numbers, it’ll be similar but we want to make sure that whatever we do makes sense for Dane County.”
But reopening will still be difficult, especially for people who are currently unemployed and at risk from COVID-19. Last month, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate rose all the way up to 27%, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. That’s about triple what it was during the height of the great recession. Unemployment benefits have helped keep these people afloat until they can return to work.
But according to Victor Forberger, a labor employment attorney, returning to work could be difficult. Because employees are re-hired but feel unsafe working for fear of infection, they could still lose their benefits.
“It would have to be litigated,” said Forberger. “They would need to have evidence indicating that they would suffer some kind of medical harm. So they would need a doctor’s note indicating that they need to avoid exposures beyond just normal exposure and they would need evidence about the employer’s lack of PPE and other stuff. Of course, the employer will be denying all this-most likely-and the department usually will take the employer’s claims on face value. So it will be on the employee to disprove those claims.”
Forberger says that getting the doctor’s note can be very difficult, because it’s hard to schedule an appointment during the pandemic.
Weekly unemployment benefits in Wisconsin max out at $370.
Federal pandemic aid provides another weekly $600 in cash. In many cases, getting re-hired means an employee will lose that $970, even if an employee has concerns about their health. Michelle Evermore, a spokesperson for the National Employment Law Project, says there are some cases that will allow people who return to work to keep receiving the $600 pandemic aid.
“Anybody with COVID-19 can get pandemic unemployment assistance,” said Evermore. “Anybody caring for somebody who has COVID-19. Anybody who has caregiving responsibilities, say that the school and the daycare are both closed because of the virus, those people should be able to get pandemic unemployment assistance. The other thing is people who are immunocompromised and can get a doctor’s note saying that they need to self-quarantine during this time, they should be able to get pandemic unemployment assistance.”
She says that her organization is asking the U.S. government to clarify language in unemployment law related to unsafe working conditions.
Evermore says that workers do have the right to turn down work or leave if they can prove that their workplace is not properly equipped to keep them safe or if the work endangers their “health, safety, or morals.” She says the problem is that this is not clear, and the National Employment Law Project are trying to fix that.
“The employment and training administration, they’ve issued a lot of guidance about how to enforce the new CARES Act provisions that cover more people for unemployment insurance,” said Evermore. “But it’s still not clear from their guidance that people have the right to refuse unsafe work. And so we’re trying to work with them to get that guidance.”