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City to pursue strategy protecting at-risk workers from Covid-19 threat

Friday, May 15, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The city is expected to begin assembling a strategy to limit the spread of Covid-19 among at-risk workers with high rates of contact with the public, including those in jobs that have restarted following state government moves to reopen the Texas economy.

A resolution led by Council Member Greg Casar asks the city manager to create a plan to help workers work remotely if possible, or limit their exposure to the virus in the workplace and help them access unemployment benefits if they lose their job for health reasons related to the virus. It also calls for steps to educate local workers about their rights under federal legislation related to Covid-19, including paid sick time for those who have symptoms that could signal infection.

Casar said at-risk workers are the third cohort, along with homeless people and nursing home patients, who have the highest risk of infection and perpetuating community spread of the virus. With plans in place to house those experiencing homelessness in local hotels, and with strike teams addressing issues at nursing homes, he said it is time for the city to take steps to limit the impact of the virus on local workers.

“It’s that third group that we haven’t had a strategy for, and it’s a pretty diffuse group,” he said. “We need a person to know they can access unemployment benefits and that if they can’t because of discriminatory legal barriers then we need to find a way to keep them home. Otherwise our whole strategy could fail and that might mean we have to have multiple more lockdowns and we overfill our hospitals. We can’t fail at that strategy, which is why it has many parts because we’re trying to plug so many holes that exist in workers rights protections.”

The resolution acknowledges that the city may have to make a financial contribution to help workers who lose their jobs or are otherwise impacted by the virus’ spread, with those costs likely to be covered by funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. City staffers are at work on assembling a framework for programs and costs covered by the $170.8 million available to the city.

Other steps called for in the resolution include the creation of a workers resource center to help educate high-risk workers who need help filing for assistance or receiving training for jobs with lower risk of exposure, and assisting workers with virus testing to help monitor its prevalence in the community.

“In so many other states everyone has the right to paid sick time or to access their unemployment insurance,” Casar said. “In Texas we have people who have to choose between social distancing rules and following public health rules or their economic survival. A lot of times they choose economic survival and then gamble with their health.”

Casar and others on Council have acknowledged that ongoing legal challenges to the city’s paid sick leave law could make some of the steps called for in the resolution difficult, which is part of the reason it advises the city manager to “be as creative and thorough as possible within the city’s legal authority.”

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who helped co-sponsor the resolution, said in a prepared statement that the city has to meet the difficult task of helping a population with many different challenges and issues related to the virus.

“Right now, it feels like there are more leaks in the dam than we have fingers to plug them up with, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing everything we can to try to fill the many, many gaps created by this pandemic,” she said. “Creating a strategy to keep our high-risk workers safe is just common sense, and the need becomes more urgent when you consider that many of those workers come from African American and Latinx communities where the risk of death from Covid-19 is disproportionately higher.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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