Colorado workers in a few fields got a taste of the state’s new normal on Monday, returning to the shops, homes they are showing to prospective buyers and even surgical suites where they worked before Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay at home order on March 25.
Scores more workers could leave their homes and head back to the workplace over the next 10 days as Polis loosens restrictions on retailers and office-based businesses as part of his less strict “safer at home” phase of the state’s coronavirus response.
But a recent survey of Coloradans found that just 29% of people are in favor of easing health safety measures for the sake of kick-starting the state’s economy.
The rollback has sparked a lot of questions for the state’s labor department. Workers impacted by the virus have been filing unemployment claims at a record-shattering clip and now some of them stand to lose benefits if they are called back to work and don’t comply.
“The big questions of the day for the workers is, ‘I don’t feel safe. Do I have to go back to work?’” Cher Haavind, deputy executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said Monday. “If you are on unemployment do you risk losing your benefits if you refuse to return to work? And, as with everything with unemployment, it depends.”
Polis, in an executive order Sunday, directed the labor department to draft emergency rules to ensure people, particularly those deemed “vulnerable individuals,” would not lose benefits if they refused to go back to work and their workplace had “COVID-19-related demonstrable, unsafe working conditions.”
The rules have not been finalized yet but a draft provided to The Denver Post on Monday lays out four criteria the state is likely to use when deciding if a worker can still collect benefits if they turn down an offer to return to work: the objective level of risk the person’s workplace; the normal level of risk that workplace would present without coronavirus; the worker’s coronavirus vulnerability as determined by professional medical standards; and, finally, the vulnerability of anyone the worker might live with.
The rules could be finalized as soon as Tuesday, Haavind said. The labor department has also added information to its website focused on return-to-work questions.
By visiting colorado.gov/pacific/cdle/covid-19/return-to-work, workers can find a list of resources, including directions to contact the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, if they spot workplace safety violations. The site also links to a frequently-asked-questions document. The FAQ sheet includes information for people who have been deemed vulnerable but are being called back to the workplace.
“Per Safer at Home Executive Order D 2020 044, no vulnerable individuals can be compelled by their employer to return to work if their work requires in-person work near others,” the document reads. “If the workplace is particularly unsafe — e.g., if it had an outbreak — unemployment benefits might be available, depending on the facts, and OSHA safety rules might limit requirements to return.”
Aaron Collins, 37, of Denver, is preparing to go back to work as a project manager at Fin Art, a local furniture shop focused on serving bars and restaurants. With just six employees and a 25,000-square-foot shop, Collins feels Fin Art is prepared to adhere to social distancing rules but the business is taking extra precautions.
“What we have decided to do is to run it in shifts,” Collins said Monday. “We’re trying to keep it to three people in the shop at one time. That’s a safe social distance. (We) have a bunch of alcohol sprays we use on hand tools and passing those around and wearing dust masks and respirators in the shop.”
Collins notes that while none of his coworkers have pre-existing health conditions that might make them vulnerable to COVID-19, three of them have kids.
“I wouldn’t ask an employee to come back to work who was worried about it,” he said.
Some businesses — even those not subject to more stringent stay-at-home rules in place in Denver and surrounding counties — are choosing to wait rather than rush to reopen.
The Colorado Chamber of Commerce surveyed more than 80 businesses of various sizes from around the state early last week and found that half of those that responded approved of a phased approach to reopening nonessential business. While 37% wanted to see that happen as soon as possible, 12% of respondents at the time felt it was to soon to consider reopening nonessential businesses.
Forty-five percent of business owners expressed concern about the legal liability they might face if they opened up and an employee contracted COVID-19 in the workplace.
Denver Post staff writer Tiney Ricciardi contributed to this report.