PENNLIVE — Amid ongoing safety concerns among essential workers, Gov. Tom Wolf said Pennsylvania cannot widely enforce workplace protections and suggested employees refuse to go to work if they don’t feel safe.
The statement comes just days before the state will allow businesses in 24 counties to reopen.
“In the end, they have the ultimate sanction, which is just to say, ‘Well then, I’m not coming to work’,” Wolf told reporters Tuesday. “And, as a former employer, I know that would be the most powerful thing that any worker can do.”
But workers and their advocates said they should not be forced to put their job on the line to be properly protected from the coronavirus, noting that refusing to go to work is often tantamount to quitting and also could jeopardize their ability to collect unemployment compensation.
When asked to clarify Wolf’s comments, a spokesperson, Lyndsay Kensinger, denied he was encouraging people to quit their jobs but did not explain what the governor meant.
Workers from across the state, particularly those in lower-pay meatpacking and warehouse jobs, continue to raise alarms that their employers were slow to respond to coronavirus outbreaks, failed to provide protective equipment, or operate workplaces where it’s simply impossible to practice social distancing.
Last month, the Wolf administration issued an order requiring businesses deemed essential to take steps to protect workers from COVID-19. So far, the Pennsylvania State Police has issued 25 warnings and no citations, which carry a maximum $300 fine.
Wolf said his administration is working with employers, with a particular focus on food suppliers and meatpacking plants, going so far as to supply businesses with personal protective equipment.
And he outlined the steps employees can take if their employers aren’t following state and federal guidelines. That includes raising issues with their employer and filing complaints with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, local law enforcement, the state police, state agencies like the Department of Health, and, finally, refusing to go to work.
“We can only do so much with oversight,” Wolf said. “What we really need is for employers to do what is in their self-interest, and that is give their employees the confidence they need to come to work. Otherwise, you’re going to have a hard time getting people to come to work.”
The process underscores the bind many essential employees find themselves in, and what might face others as businesses begin to reopen.
“That’s a four-letter word that people don’t use today — I understand his point but quitting isn’t an option,” said a worker at a Schuylkill County warehouse that ships orders for fashion retailer Saks Fifth Avenue.
The worker, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said complaints filed with federal and state regulators were ignored, and now she faces a choice: return to work when her approved leave expires this week, or risk a possible termination with no assurance that she’ll qualify for unemployment compensation.
“I don’t know what’s worse,” she said. “The stress of going to work or taking your chances and being accused of refusing work?”
In March, Wolf shut down all but “life-sustaining” businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus, allowing warehouses to remain open because they serve as distribution centers. The state police were also tasked with enforcing that order, and have issued 312 warnings and a single citation.
Wolf said few citations were issued because of a belief that businesses are trying to adhere to the guidelines. Spokespeople for both the state police and the health department noted that their focus is on educating businesses, not taking punitive measures against them.
The one business cited so far, a roofing company based in Lebanon County, had been warned twice before receiving a citation, state police said.
State officials are preparing to reopen 24 counties in northwest and north-central Pennsylvania on Friday, allowing businesses to resume physical operations if they agree to follow certain safety precautions. Secretary of Labor and Industry Jerry Oleksiak said Monday if workers refuse to return to a job, they will not be eligible for unemployment.
State Sen. Steven Santarsiero (D., Bucks), one of several lawmakers to propose new worker protections in light of COVID-19, said he’s optimistic the legislature will act soon given bipartisan agreement on other pandemic-related legislation.
“Frankly, this has to be a priority of the federal government on down,” he said. “There has to be a strong federal response to make sure these businesses are doing it. And it’s not acceptable that’s not the case now.”
Marielle Macher, a workers’ rights advocate and executive director of the Community Justice Project, said quitting over working conditions should be the absolute last resort.
“Obviously, there should be robust enforcement,” she said. “Workers shouldn’t have to quit to deal with an unsafe workplace.”
Macher, whose organization offers advice to workers in these kinds of situations, said employees should complain to their employer first while taking steps to ensure they have evidence if the case ends up before an unemployment compensation referee hearing, for example. That includes recording the grievances in writing and going to the employer in groups of two, so they are protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
Meanwhile, workers with certain health conditions may be able to ask for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, she said. That could include more protective gear or even taking a leave of absence.
But most workers don’t have that option.
“Sure, there are places hiring but it’s just the same as what’s happening here,” said an employee at a Syncreon warehouse in Cumberland County that ships Apple products. “Unfortunately, with my level of education and age, my options are warehouses, construction, and cooking. And all those require you to be around people.”