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Workers seek answers about their rights as pandemic rages on

Detroit — As millions of employees who can’t do their jobs from home are sent back to work while the coronavirus pandemic rages on, many of them are opting for retirement, calling in sick or simply questioning whether their jobs are worth the risk of exposure.

From restaurant to auto plant workers, some who have returned now question whether enough is being done to protect them from the virus that has killed more than 135,000 in the United States. 

Q&AKnow your worker rights in the pandemic

In early June, as restaurants in Michigan were preparing to reopen for dine-in service, bartender Jennifer Drewyore-Beck sent a letter to her boss of the Metro Detroit restaurant where she worked.

"Like most people, being out of work has been difficult, and I'm definitely excited to get back to it!" she wrote.

However, Drewyore-Beck, 44, of Taylor had concerns. She wanted to know what the restaurant's health screening process would be; what the cleaning protocols would be should someone at the restaurant test positive for COVID-19; and what would happen if she were to contract the virus.

Workers leave after their shift at Fiat Chrysler's Warren Truck Plant in May on their first day back at work after the coronavirus shutdown.

She sent a detailed list of questions, according to a copy of the letter provided to The Detroit News but says she never got an answer.

Instead, said Drewyore-Beck, who declined to name her employer, she was taken off the schedule after she opted not to return right away.

Labor and employment experts say the coronavirus poses a unique challenge: It's new and not well understood. 

The federal agency tasked with ensuring workplace safety has issued no guidance of its own on the coronavirus, and, according to experts and news reports from across the country, has largely failed to investigate coronavirus-related complaints. Some experts say federal and state Occupational Safety and Health Administration offices simply don't have the ability or capacity to respond.

"There is no system in the state of Michigan that is set up to protect employees from becoming ill from viruses," said Deborah Gordon, a Bloomfield Hills-based employment and civil rights attorney. "Unfortunately, there is no panacea for employees who feel unsafe. If (the employer) is following the rules, you're just going to have to make a decision if you're going to gut it out."

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforces Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as well as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive orders that establish protocols for workplace safety for businesses.

Complaints to MIOSHA ballooned from an average of 200 to 240 a month to more than 1,000 at the start of the pandemic in March and April; complaints started to drop in June. Despite the increase, Sean Egan, Michigan's COVID-19 workplace safety director, says citations haven't gone up.

He said the agency "has been enforcing workplace safety standards" throughout the pandemic but "always tries to seek compliance first."

Egan believes the increase in claims was because of confusion around what was safe, and many complaints were about employers being open when the employee didn't think they should be. The office has a 95%-plus compliance rate with COVID-19 complaints, he said.

Employers are under no legal obligation to test employees or inform their workforce about other employees being tested, as that would violate health privacy rules, Gordon said.

But, she added: "If your colleague has been diagnosed with COVID and is still working, that's a whole other matter, and I think that could be an OSHA matter."

Even in auto plants, where workers' rights are guarded by contracts with the United Auto Workers, absenteeism has been rampant as workers have felt either uncomfortable or unable for health reasons to enter plants. 

Increased absenteeism led GM, for example, to ax third-shift production of mid-size trucks at its plant in Wentzville, Missouri, laying off at least 1,000 workers.

'Very difficult situation'

United Auto Workers Local 12 President Bruce Baumhower has seen some tough times in his 48 years in the auto industry, but this time "is as challenging as I've ever seen."

COVID-19 concerns have led to a spike in retirements at Fiat Chrysler's Toledo Assembly Complex, Baumhower said. He would typically see about 40 retirements in a year. This year, there have been close to 90. The retirements come while others request leave or stay out because they're quarantined. 

"We are probably about 300 people short in the plant," Baumhower said. "This is a very difficult situation. It’s the hand we were dealt, so we got to try to make the best out of it, but it’s very difficult lately."

Fiat Chrysler has put part-time workers at Toledo on six-day schedules instead of three, with canvassing for a seventh day to make up for increased absences. One temporary part-time worker who requested anonymity said many worry about mental and physical strain.

Word of new cases is spread via Facebook by workers. Only those who come in direct contact with an employee who experiences symptoms are notified, the employee said.

FCA asks employees experiencing COVID-19 symptoms to not report to work and call in absent, company spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said in a statement. The medical department provides an assessment of the individual with symptoms as well as anyone who has come into close contact with a confirmed case. Based on an assessment, a recommendation on testing is made.

“FCA continues to make the health and safety of its employees a top priority,” Tinson said. “Since restarting our operations, we have not had any spread of the virus in our plants. … For privacy reasons, FCA does not release the names of those with confirmed cases but meets with those who may be impacted or in close contact. We have been aggressive in following recommended guidelines for contact tracing to prevent the spread and transmission.”

The company also has formed task forces with the UAW to address employee concerns.

UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, who is director of the union's FCA department, said UAW Local 12 and management in Toledo has created "a task force to identify key issues and implement corrective measures."

Some of the information being spread by social media is not based in fact, UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said. 

"Rumors persist, and daily we try to clarify for members and the media the facts," he said in a statement. He said the union was "committed to continuing to find the best way to communicate factually — including some plants where positive case updates are posted each day in the plant.”

Matt Horner, a 20-year General Motors Co. employee, worries about overlapping shifts since coming back to work at GM's Fort Wayne Assembly plant after an eight-week shutdown. 

“We basically hand the tools off hot to one another,” said Horner, noting GM gives them six minutes to clean the workspace between shifts. “There’s still two shifts worth of people under the roof at the same time.”

GM requires masks be worn during shifts and when exiting and entering the plant. The automaker has social-distancing markers throughout the plant. 

GM spokesman David Barnas said: "We have set everything up so social-distancing can be done wherever possible. It's everyone's responsibility to follow the protocols to make sure they are keeping themselves, their co-workers and communities safe. We are absolutely committed to having a healthy and safe workplace." 

Worker protections

Jim Rasor of Rasor Law Firm in Royal Oak represents dozens of workers over workplace safety during the pandemic. His clients include four former Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace emergency room workers who say the hospital wrongfully fired them.

Workers have options, he says, when an employer demands they work in conditions they feel are unsafe. That includes coming forward under the Whistleblowers Protection Act, which protects workers from being fired, threatened or discriminated against for reporting violations of the law or regulations. 

"I don't think people really understand that they have an obligation and a right to complain to state and federal authorities when there's illegal or unethical conduct in the workplace," Rasor said.

The Michigan Nurses Association, a union representing registered nurses, recently filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that UP Health System-Marquette violated federal labor law by not providing an inventory of its personal protective equipment. Lack of protective equipment has been a flashpoint nationwide between healthcare workers and their employers.

Katie Pontifex, an MNA board member and local union officer, said protective equipment was the "primary focus" of early talks between the union and Sparrow Hospital in Lansing where she works as a registered nurse.

MNA successfully advocated, she said, for MIOSHA to enforce protections for health care workers who wear their own personal protective equipment, which some employers had not allowed: "That is for all (union-) represented and non-represented workers in the state."

Businesses in the state have to follow guidelines set by MIOSHA. They include creating an exposure control plan, offering personal protective equipment, training employees on exposure to the virus and having daily health screenings. 

That puts the onus on states to put in place their own requirements, which Michigan has done via Whitmer's executive orders.

But Drewyore-Beck, the restaurant worker, said she contacted MIOSHA but was not permitted to file a complaint: "The conversation was less than six minutes, and it was me being spoken to about how I was wrong."

Gordon said MIOSHA is designed to protect workers from occupational hazards such as dangerous machinery set-ups or asbestos problems — "concrete things that could cause somebody harm" — but not a virus: "There is no great template that is readily available."

Instead, it's on employers to comply with the governor's executive orders. Workers have few options unless their employer is in violation. In that case, the employee's best option would be to first communicate with their employer, and then, if the problem isn't corrected, go to MIOSHA, Gordon said.

If that fails, she said quitting and applying for unemployment may be the only thing employees can do: "Your options are fairly limited. It puts a huge onus on the individual worker."

Drewyore-Beck sees an industry-wide issue of low-wage workers with few protections being sent back to restaurants amid varying degrees of compliance. 

"I saw this coming, unfortunately, with a lot of bars and restaurants, because I've been in and out of (the industry) for 25 years," she said. "There really is no enforcement agency for bars and restaurants, for what anybody is doing or not doing. We've never had protections of any kind, so I didn't really expect it."

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

Staff Writer Breana Noble contributed.