Essential workers say employers not following work-from-home, safety precautions

A man cleans a water fountain.
Custodian Anton Jennings cleans one of the water fountains on the first floor hallway of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on March 18, 2020. During the first week of Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order in Minnesota, workers are questioning whether their jobs are truly essential and say they fear contracting the coronavirus at work.
Rich Pedroncelli | AP Photo file

It's the first full week of Gov. Tim Walz's stay-at-home order — and that means only essential employees are allowed to show up to work.

But the order has created confusion and concern for some who say they are being required by their employers to work in jobs that aren’t truly essential or that they are not being allowed to work from home when possible. Several spoke to MPR News on the condition of anonymity, or that their full names not be used, saying they feared losing their jobs by speaking out.

That includes Linda, a woman who works at a flower shop in St. Paul.

She said that initially, the owner of the store closed the shop when Walz issued the stay-at-home order. But over the weekend, Linda said the owner decided to reopen the store for deliveries, which is allowed under the executive order, and asked her to report to work as usual.

Linda said she had stage 4 cancer several years ago. And while she’s healthy now, she’s concerned she’s at higher risk of contracting the virus if she’s required to work.

“I have some health conditions, and I’m over 60,” Linda said. “And I’m told I should be sheltering in place. I don’t know what the balance is — whether I should go to work and help my coworkers or ask someone to take my shift.”

The Walz administration has issued a series of executive orders meant to protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes fast-tracking unemployment benefits if they lose their job due to a closure, get sick with the virus or are exposed to it.

Also, individuals with disabilities that affect an employee’s risk for contracting COVID-19 can request reasonable accommodations with their employer.

But Linda’s situation underscores the tough decisions essential workers MPR News spoke with are facing: They either report to work and risk contracting the virus or they use paid leave to stay out of work for a few weeks.

Who is essential?

The list of workers considered essential is long: According to the Walz administration, roughly 80 percent of Minnesota’s workforce is considered key to keeping basic functions running, including health care workers, people working in grocery retail and people who work in farming or industries related to it.

The Walz administration took its cues from the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in determining which workers should be considered essential.

Minnesota’s list also includes construction workers.

MPR News spoke with two electricians who work in commercial construction who said that while some changes have been made at work to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus — for instance, reducing the number of people who can ride in elevators at the same time — it’s challenging given the number of people coming in and out of work sites daily, and where some equipment is shared between workers. Some work sites are facing hand-washing station shortages.

One electrician, who works on large commercial projects in the Twin Cities, said social distancing is nearly impossible on a job site.

“As far as social distancing, it isn’t really practiced,” he said. “You’re working around people all the time. There’s a lot of close proximity. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of people taking it seriously.”

He said guidance from the state doesn’t go far enough to define essential construction.

“Building an office building ... is not, to me, critical work.” he said. “I’m not suggesting that we don’t work for four or six months. The governor asked us to try to quash the ramp up of this virus that’s going to spread, and I just don’t think it’s too much to ask for two weeks to shut down.”

A matter of fairness

In central Minnesota, a woman who works for Mann Lake Ltd., a beekeeping supply company, said her employer refuses to let her work from home even though her job involves international sales for the company primarily over email.

Mann Lake has remained open because it’s involved in the agriculture industry, the worker said.

“They still need to be doing things to protect their employees, and they’re kind of ignoring that,” she said. “There are measures they could be taking — for instance, people who can work from home, they are totally ignoring that. They are saying, ‘You may not work from home. If we offered it to some of you, it wouldn’t be fair because we can’t offer it to everyone.’”

The employee says the company’s policy is frustrating given she has been able to work from home in the past.

Mann Lake CEO Stuart Volby said in a statement that the business is following the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to minimize risk to its employees, and the company will continue to adjust its work-from-home policy depending on each individual employee's situation.

The fairness argument is a common theme MPR News has heard from others who work in office jobs: Their employers say they need to show up at the office for work even if their job could be done at home because they can’t extend the same policy to all workers in the company.

In a press conference this week, Walz said that employees should bring complaints about these policies to his administration. And he reminded employers that his executive orders are clear that workers who can work from home should.

“I would ask everyone to have their better angels win out here... We are prepared to enforce these rules,” he said. “If you feel like you’re being put in harm’s way, if you’re being put at a risk and are compromised, make sure you’re talking to your employer. If not, talk to us at the state.”

Walz added that employers should also use his administration as a resource if they’re not clear on how these rules should be implemented.

The woman who works for Mann Lake has been at home already for a week after her son returned home from studying abroad. She said that she wanted to take precautions in case he had been exposed to the virus, and her employer encouraged her to apply for unemployment insurance during this time rather than work from home.

She said that quitting her job all together isn’t an option because she needs the income and the health care benefits. But she said she’s struggling with her situation.

“I’m really having a hard time wanting to go back to a company that cares so little about its employees,” she said.