Coronavirus: Balancing ‘keeping people alive and keeping our economy going’

The coronavirus pandemic cast more than 468,000 Ohioans out of jobs in just two weeks — and forced many others in the Dayton region to feel they must choose between their paycheck and their health.

It’s a struggle for workers, local and state government leaders and business owners to balance keeping vital, essential businesses functioning and protecting the health of those who can’t work from home.

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“There are a lot of colliding priorities here: keeping people alive and keeping our economy going,” said Dr. Gary LeRoy, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians and associate dean for student affairs and admission at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.

Many workers who can’t work from home are fearful for their lives and families, according to a Dayton Daily News survey that 232 people filled out online. Most of them didn’t provide their names because they were afraid of retribution.

“We are in a horrific bind here. If we walk out and quit, then we have no support for our families … If we stay, we are at risk to not only exposing ourselves and getting the virus but our families and loved ones,” said a call center worker who responded.

“They just need to shut the city down,” said another, a store cashier.

It’s not that simple, said Chris Kershner, executive vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

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“How we are going to beat this thing is by all of us working together to create a safe environment for us to operate and do business,” he said. “We need the economy … You have to be able to continue to have the buying and selling of goods and economic stimulus and people employed.”

Deciding either to save lives or save the economy is a “false choice,” said Kelly Johnson, an ethicist and the Father Ferree Chair of Social Justice at the University of Dayton.

“The economy is built by the work of people, and when people aren’t healthy, they don’t do the work,” she said. “So I think many of the people who first started talking that way, had a really false impression of how this virus’ tentacles work. They were imagining that it would be: Grandma has been sitting over there in the chair by the fire for a long time and not contributing to the economy. And we could just let grandma die and everything else would go on as normal. And that’s so clearly not what is actually happening.”

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COVID-19 has proven to be an indiscriminate “invisible predator,” taking the lives of not only older Americans but also “young invincibles,” who were thought to have more immunity, LeRoy said.

“It’s no longer just the senior citizens that are of greatest risk. Anyone is at risk of dying of this virus,” LeRoy said.

Employers scrambling

Johnson said people are accustomed to thinking they can buy a way out of every problem.

“But we are connected to each other and we’re all fragile,” Johnson said. “And if you want to have access to health care, then you need to make sure that your doctors and hospitals are able to keep functioning.”

The jobs of many workers, especially public employees, simply must get done for society to continue to function, said Tom Ritchie Sr., president of the Dayton-Miami Valley Regional Labor Council.

“There is a need for our public union workers to provide essential services to ensure that things get done: water service, the safety of the roads or running water treatment facilities,” he said.

The labor council umbrella also includes workers who clean buses, haul Dayton’s trash and keep the airport operational, as well as protect residents as firefighters and medics.

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Ritchie has also heard many concerns from union workers on the front lines at grocery stores and construction sites. While there is greater awareness about social distancing guidelines at workplaces, many remain short of cleaning supplies due to shortages.

“I know that employers are just scrambling trying to get things ordered, and they’re having difficulty finding them,” he said.

The actions taken over the past few weeks by the state and local governments have been crucial to keeping people not only safe, but working, Ritchie said.

“They have to have nourishment for their bodies and their brains. They have to have fuel. They have to be able to take care of health care needs and get prescriptions filled,” he said.

The Dayton Daily News survey taken last week drew 232 responses from employees still working through the coronavirus pandemic. Already fearing contracting COVID-19 in the workplace, few wished to provide their names out of fear of retribution at work.

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Many workers responded that they remain anxious they will contract the virus. Employees working in too-close proximity to others was the top concern among workers who completed the survey. Nearly half — 47% — cited a lack of physical distancing. More than a third of the respondents said unsanitary working conditions puts them at risk of contracting COVID-19.

“They have been keeping masks, soap, toilet paper, towels and disinfectant spray locked up in the maintenance department. They don’t seem to care about the health of their employees,” said one machinist at a local manufacturing plant. “The company seems more worried about losing a dollar rather than taking measures to make sure employees are safe.”

‘I’m terrified’

More than 10% of the survey responses came from people who said they work at Kohl’s E-Commerce Fulfillment Center in Monroe. Many had complaints about handling the same equipment as coworkers without the ability to keep items sanitized and working alongside those who are sick.

“We all feel like it’s having to make the decision between our health and a paycheck,” said one Kohl’s worker. “It’s definitely not a safe environment to be in and I’m terrified to go into this place.”

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The Butler County General Health District has opened an investigating into workers’ claims, the agency confirmed Wednesday. The location typically employs between 850 and 1,000 people, Kohl’s has previously said.

Other workers there said business at the center is nonessential during the pandemic as it sells items like shoes, candles and cookware.

Kohl’s remains open to support its online customers while taking steps to protect employees, said Weston Banker, a Kohl’s spokesman.

“The health and safety of our associates and customers remains our top priority. Kohl’s has comprehensive cleaning and sanitization protocols in place at these facilities to maintain a safe environment,” Banker said.

According to Banker, work attendance at the Kohl’s location is voluntary at this time and employees may use sick time or paid time off, as applicable to company policy. The company is also providing temporary bonus pay for employees, he said.

Order extended

Last week, Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton extended until May 1 the state’s stay-at-home order, which now also forces some businesses to set occupancy limits. The new order also set up a dispute resolution panel so businesses in different health districts are treated equally.

Public Health–Dayton & Montgomery County ordered 18 businesses to close last week as the result of investigations into more than 360 sites. The businesses told to close were primarily nonessential, included multiple pet groomers, smoke shops, a comic store, video or gaming shops and adult businesses, said Jeff Cooper, the county's health commissioner.

“It isn’t easy for any of us. We understand the economic burden that it places on our community, as well as our state,” he said. “But our lives are more important than that. We have to protect ourselves.”

Peter Bell owner of Bell, Book & Comic on Patterson Road. He received a cease and desist order from Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County at the end of last week, telling him he could run his online business but that his retail store was nonessential.

He was closed to the general public but let subscription customers in on a limited basis. People stuck at home want entertainment, Bell said.

He accepted the health district’s order.

“It’s keeping people safe,” Bell said, noting he has online customers he can service and has received support from them.

‘No easy prescription’

Fixing the economic fallout will be long coming, LeRoy and Kershner said.

“We have all this technology around us, but even with the technology, it doesn’t tell us how to get our heads wrapped around a solution to make this go away in a very quick way,” LeRoy said. “We’re used to things being solved within days as opposed to weeks, if not months.”

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Kershner said no one can foretell how long it will be until the economy rebounds and people feel safe at work again.

“We’re all trying to now navigate these waters and identify the best possible solution to sustainability and recovery,” Kershner said “There’s no easy prescription.”

What concerns workers?

Here are the top workplace concerns of 232 people who took a Dayton Daily News survey conducted online Wednesday and Thursday. Some respondents cited multiple concerns.

47%: Said employers are not doing enough to enforce social distancing guidelines by keeping employees and customers at least six feet apart.

36%: Said not enough is being done to keep their workplaces clean or they are lacking in sanitizing products or unable to wash hands regularly.

19%: Said they are working at non-essential jobs or still working to sell non-essential items.

15%: Said they are working alongside sick co-workers.

10%: Responded that they lacked proper personal protective equipment.

8%: Said their jobs could be done at home but are not allowed to by employers.

8%: Said employers were not taking the temperature of employees reporting to work.

7%: Responded that they would be penalized or lose their jobs if they stayed home from work.

A Dayton Daily News survey drew more than 200 responses from employees working through the coronavirus pandemic. Few wished to give their names out of fear of reprisal. While not publishing the names of the workers or their employers, we are publishing a selection of the accounts — from restaurant workers to store employees to government staff — that illustrate the unease many are having with reporting to work every day. More of these responses will be published Sunday, April 12, on the Ideas & Voices page.

Building supply company employee

“The store is busier now than ever. I have had customers say they are glad we are open because they are bored. People are just going there to get out of the house. They are buying supplies for projects — nothing essential.”

Construction worker

“Nobody takes social distancing seriously. No signs posted, no sanitation guidelines, portable restroom, no hand sanitizer. More than 10 people in a house sometimes.”

Discount store cashier

“They just need to shut the city down for a while for real. We got people who are still out buying nonessential things. It’s not fair to us risking our lives to stay open when we see the same faces that come in our stores daily. I am concerned about our manager and assistant manger’s health because of their age. But at the same time, we don’t know who carries the virus when they come in and out of the stores. Period. It’s not fair to us or the community. I think there should be set days to be able to go out … We are risking our lives being out here and it’s not fair. They just need to shut the city down, maybe people will take it more seriously.”

Manufacturing company employee

“I’m 67 and have COPD and high blood pressure. I’m afraid because of my age and my COPD that my chance of getting coronavirus is like 100%. My workplace has 100-plus people, not everyone follows the rules. No temperature is taken unless you ask for it. I’m concerned for other co-workers who have health issues. My company let me take a leave of absence with pay March 23 but that ends April 1. I have to return April 2. I’m so afraid and really don’t know where to seek help. I really don’t want to go back!”

Restaurant cashier

“We are doing no-touch takeout, but 80% of the customers — even though we strictly tell them no — will still try to come into the store, or will try to stand outside of the store. Also, if the food is wrong, we have to correct it, which involves taking the food back, which could still have germs on the bag or the box. Our work washes hands every 30 minutes and cleans, but it still makes me nervous that the customers are not listening to the rules that have been set by us and the governor.”

Dispatch call center employee

“We are in a horrific bind here. If we walk out and quit, then we have no support for our families, no income, no job during this unforeseen time. If we stay, we are at risk to not only exposing ourselves and getting the virus, but our families and loved ones as well.”

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