Coronavirus: Area workers question essential vs nonessential

After a state order took effect late Monday night, Ohio’s “non-essential” businesses were supposed to close and “non-essential” workers were told to stay home to try to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

But the Dayton region is home to thousands of businesses and more than 388,000 workers in hundreds of occupations, and some people may not know if they qualify as essential, and the order leaves some room for interpretation, according to local officials.

The Dayton Daily News has received many calls from people concerned about being asked to go to work at their local jobs. Some question if they will be safe or if their company is “essential.”

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Most businesses likely want to be essential and remain open, but to determine if they qualify they should read the state order, consult with their attorney or legal counsel and use basic common sense, said Phil Parker, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

Parker said the chamber has received questions from local businesses about the order, but generally it is clear-cut and hasn’t caused much confusion among the business community.

“I think it’s been fairly clear,” he said. “And some businesses may have a portion that’s related to essential services.”

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While there may be disagreements about whether a business or employee technically qualifies as essential, one of the most important things is that businesses that continue to operate make sure their workers follow safe social distancing and sanitation practices, said Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.

Companies can make a case why they should remain open, but they have no excuse for not following orders to provide safe workplaces during this global pandemic, according to local officials and business leaders.

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At 11:59 p.m. Monday night, Ohio’s stay-at-home order went into effect that deems 25 different groups of businesses as essential, as well as other subgroups, state officials said.

To comply with the order, some local employers shut down or decided to send a portion or all of their workforce home, like the city of Dayton, which instructed hundreds of “non-essential” personnel to stay home and work remotely when possible.

Many businesses in the Dayton region meet the definition of essential or have some services or products that are essential, Parker said, and even those that are not may be able to stay open if they transition to providing essential work.

The state order is meant to stop the spread of disease while trying to avoid disrupting the availability of essential products and services, and the order is pretty clear on what types of businesses are allowed to stay open, Parker said.

Ohio has more than 253,000 employers and 5.6 million workers, while the Dayton metro area has more than 18,000 employers and 388,000 workers, according to the U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

ExploreThe bureau say that there are more than 470 occupations in the Dayton metro area that each employ at least 30 people.

Some of the Dayton metro area's top occupations likely considered essential include registered nurses (11,960 workers), food preparation and serving workers, including fast food (10,240), stock clerks and order fillers (5,450) and nursing assistants (4,960).

Other top occupations in the metro area could be essential or non-essential, depending on the type of work, include retail sales people (12,480 jobs), cashiers (9,170), laborers and freight, stock and material movers (7,970), office clerks (7,900), waiters and waitresses (6,340), janitors and cleaners, except maids and house-cleaners (6,080) and customer service representatives (5,080).

The order is pretty straightforward for some lines of work, like hospital and health care workers, but it is not as clear when it mentions critical trades, media and some other broad categories, said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a law professor with the University of Dayton School of Law.

The order includes specific critical trade jobs like plumbers, electricians, exterminators, security staff, operating engineers, painting and moving and relocation services and other providers who are important to the “safety, sanitation and essential operation” of homes and essential businesses.

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But the order says that it is not limited to only the listed occupations, and Hoffmeister said there is some room for interpretation of what businesses are essential to fighting the virus and maintaining everyday activities.

When people first learned about the stay-at-home order, they may have thought they wouldn’t be able to do much of anything as they are directed to shelter at home, Hoffmeister said.

But the broad categories of essential businesses means many employers will have a decent case why they fit into one or more of the categories, Hoffmeister said.

He said businesses that don’t close or send their workers home have been ordered to take safety precautions, which was one of the governor’s main concerns that people weren’t following recommended practices.

The Dayton Development Coalition has received calls and questions from businesses including contractors at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base wanting to know if they are exempt from the order, said Jeff Hoagland, the organization’s president and CEO.

Individual businesses should check with their attorneys and base officials or contacts to find out if they meet the requirements, but generally, defense contractors and firms are deemed vital and necessary, Hoagland said.

“Most of it is pretty cut and dry,” Hoagland said, referring to the order. “But it is up to the company, if there is a question mark, to do work on their side and reach out to their partners.”

Hoagland say businesses should read the order and use common sense, and if they remain open, they need to be diligent about cleaning, hand washing, social distancing and other safety precautions.

Businesses that remain open should be able to explain and justify why they are remaining open during a global crisis, local business leaders say.

The biggest issue is whether businesses can operate safely, without putting their employees’ health at risk during this emergency, officials said.

Businesses that have remained open say they are taking extra measures to keep their employees and customers safe.

The state considers moving and relocation services as essential, and Two Men and a Truck is still open and getting calls from customers.

The company has 19 trucks and about 45 movers and drivers between its offices in Vandalia and Beavercreek.

Moving companies are essential because people have to pack up and leave homes they’ve sold or apartments after their leases are up, and many moves cannot wait and many clients are elderly who do not have friends or family who can help out, said Jared Button, the president of the local company office.

But Two Men and a Truck has stepped up safety protocols and workers have hand sanitizer, cloth masks, various types of gloves and are not going into the office to avoid unnecessary interaction, Button said.

Workers also are being scanned with infrared thermometers to make sure they don’t have a fever, he said.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure everyone is safe,” he said.

It’s possible that some businesses that declare themselves essential could have that challenged by workers or customers that complain to the health department, which could require administrative or legal action, Tierney said.

But the state order requires Ohioans to stay at home unless absolutely necessary, Tierney said, and businesses that are essential and remain open are ordered to follow safe sanitation and social distancing workplace practices to avoid spreading the virus.

That was a primary concern, because the state received complaints that workplaces did not have safety measures in place to protect workers, Tierney said, rather than complaints about specific types of businesses or industries putting employees at risk by remaining open.

Businesses possibly could exploit ambiguity in the order to remain open when they are not truly vital, but generally the order does a decent job of spelling out essential businesses and services and is aimed at convincing people to stay-at-home as much as possible, said Michael Shields, a researcher with Ohio Policy Matters.

Thousands of workers in the Dayton area who provide essential services during this crisis are low paid and vulnerable, like food prep workers, who make poverty-level wages, Shields said.

“I hope that one thing we’ll take away from this is the value in this work and the value in the people doing it,” he said.

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