As the nation considers how to reopen for business, some states like Iowa, which announced reopenings on April 27, are threatening to disqualify workers from receiving unemployment benefits—even if they’re staying home to avoid a contagious virus, The Hill reported on April 28. This comes on the heels of nearly 28,000 new unemployment claims filed in the state in just one week in mid-April and the closing of meat processing plant Iowa Premium in Tama, Iowa, due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
The majority of workers in meat processing plants in Iowa are immigrants and they’ve reported an inability to practice social distancing at work, Iowa Public Radio reported on April 17. From using locker rooms to standing on the assembly line, some workers told NPR that it’s hard not to be close to others and that their employers don’t notify the crew when people are sick. But Iowa’s unemployment rules provide little support for workers who fear catching coronavirus and note that "if sickness or injury would prevent you from working four or more days, benefits will be denied," according the Iowa Workforce Development.
“If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit,” said Reynolds, according to The Hill. "Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money." In other words, “workers who do not return can collect benefits only under certain circumstances, such as being sick due to the virus or living with an infected family member,” officials from the Iowa Workforce Development told the Des Moines Register.
South Carolina and Tennessee also note on their websites that workers who do not return to work when the state reopens businesses will not receive benefits. Politico reported on April 29 that in an effort to safeguard businesses, not people, Congressional Republicans are pushing to expand liability protections for companies against coronavirus-related lawsuits.
“They will be terrified, and in many cases they will be correct to be terrified,” David Michaels, who served as the Obama administration’s assistant secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, told Politico. “It’s not fair for them to be asked to choose between their income and their health.”
Nevertheless, in a separate article, the Des Moines Register reported on a forthcoming 12-page report from researchers at The University of Iowa that warns against moving too fast and says that “prevention measures should remain in place. Without such measures being continued, a second wave of infections is likely."
If the sirens in the report weren’t loud enough, one of the coauthors—Eli Perencevich, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa Health Care’s Carver College of Medicine—took to Twitter to share his outrage with decision made by Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH):
Make no mistake, IDPH and Governor have made a tragic error. By misreading Iowa’s "symptom onset" epidemic curve, they’ve been incorrectly thinking the curve is flattening, when it is actually increasing.
rnIowa opening up at the exact wrong time. Needed to wait 10-14 more days
rn— ??? ??????????? ? ? (@eliowa) April 28, 2020
Reynold’s April 27 proclamation states that 77 counties in Iowa will reopen for business starting on May 1, including restaurants, fitness centers and race tracks.