CORONAVIRUS

Bus drivers, clerks and other workers who interact with the public fear exposure to coronavirus

A TSA worker wears a mask while helping travelers get through Security Checkpoint 1 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airp
A TSA worker wears a mask while helping travelers get through Security Checkpoint 1 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times/TNS)

The last few days have been nerve-wracking for King County Metro Transit Department driver Arshpreet Singh in Seattle.

When he drives the Number 3 or 4 routes, his bus passes close to three major medical centers. Many of his passengers are patients.

“We get all kinds of people and we have no idea what they have,” Singh said. “Yeah, I’m scared.”

If he and other drivers come down with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, he added, “how are people going to get to work?”

Singh isn’t the only one asking that question.

On Wednesday, King County began advising companies to let employees work remotely to reduce the risk of workplace transmission of the virus.

But that’s not an option for those with jobs entailing lots of public interaction, including transit and delivery drivers, airport security workers, retail clerks and flight attendants. These workers are finding themselves, often unhappily, on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“They can work from home — we don’t have that option,” Isaiah Suarez, assistant manager at the Walgreens on Denny Way, said of the workers at companies that have urged employees to avoid the office.

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Adding to his unease, several of his recent customers have been openly sneezing or coughing in the store, but have seemed largely unconcerned about how that affects the store’s staff.

“I don’t think people are really considering us,” he said.

Workers such as Suarez and Singh may not be as at-risk from COVID-19 as medical professionals and first responders are, health experts say. But they do face an elevated risk of contact with someone who might be ill or otherwise contagious, according to a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Whether it’s a bus driver or a day care worker or people ... exchanging money in retail, any time you are interacting with other people you are at a slightly higher risk,” said Marissa Baker, an expert in occupational health at the University of Washington.

And that risk isn’t limited to the workers themselves, Baker said.

“Workers are not only in close proximity to each other,” she said. “They’re also in close proximity with the public, so not only are they potentially getting disease from the public, but they are also giving disease to the public.”

Compounding those risks, experts said, many of these workers have incomplete information about the coronavirus and, often, little control over when or how they work.

“People feel more at risk when they don’t have control over a situation, when they don’t understand what the situation is, and when it feels (physically) close,” Baker said. “And that’s what’s happening here in Seattle.”

Those uncertainties are adding more stress at some workplaces as employees ask for time off or push for protective measures, experts say.

At a Fred Meyer in Western Washington, store management has turned down the requests of several employees who have asked to wear masks, said one worker who asked that his name and store location not be used.

“They don’t want anybody wearing masks (in order to) to prevent panic from spreading,” the employee said he was told by a manager. “And this is a store where people are already panic buying.” Fred Meyer did not respond to a request for comment.

In confronting these questions, workers and companies are grappling with a complex health crisis, a rapidly evolving public policy, and public perceptions that are often wildly out of step with scientific fact.

For example, most public health experts say wearing a mask won’t reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, Baker said. At the same time, she said, she understands how wearing a mask can offer a sense of “control for people who are feeling exposed.”

The crisis has also raised complicated questions over the way a company’s policy on COVID-19 will square with state and local labor laws.

For example, the state’s unemployment insurance program will cover workers whose companies close due to the outbreak, said Nick Demerice, spokesperson for the state employment security department. Likewise, workers who require hospitalization or who must take care of a stricken family member may be covered under the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave law, which went into effect this year, Demerice said.

Whether employees who are quarantined would qualify for the law is unclear, Demerice said.

“Quarantine isn’t a medical issue that was envisioned under the paid family leave law,” he said, adding that state officials were scrambling to determine whether existing government programs can be adapted “to all the situations people may find themselves in where they may be losing wages as a result of COVID-19.”

Also unclear: what protections employees have during disputes with employers over COVID-19 policy. Suppose an employee insists on wearing a mask despite an employer’s objections? Suppose an employee refuses to come to work out of fear of exposure to the disease?

“The existing legal system doesn’t contemplate a pandemic,” said Aaron Goldstein, a Seattle attorney who advises companies on labor issues. Workers not directly involved in health care or emergency services have few defined protections in the case of a pandemic, he said.

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That means if employees refuse to come to work out of fear of exposure to COVID-19, they can be disciplined or even terminated, said Goldstein. “There’s not a lot of rights for employees in a pandemic scenario,” he said.

Even so, Goldstein doesn’t expect many cases where such conflicts result in termination — both because few companies can afford to lose more workers during periods of high absenteeism and because of the potential public-relations fallout.

“Firing employees who are terrified of catching coronavirus — that’s a terrible look for any kind of company with any kind of public image,” Goldstein said.

Instead, labor experts urge companies to err on the side of more generous or lenient policies during the outbreak. Goldstein, for example, is encouraging companies to temporarily expand paid sick leave during the outbreak as a way to “prevent a situation where people come to work sick because they can’t make the rent.”

He also recommends companies be explicit about their plans, for example, for closing a building if an employee tests positive for the coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Seattle-based Starbucks said it provided detailed instructions to employees for handling coronavirus risks, including what it described as “scenario-based procedural information to our store teams on how to report and support anyone that may express they’ve been impacted by the virus, including store-closure decision-making support.”

Even with the best policies the question of who can avoid the workplace will persist. “That is a reality that we and other employers are going to have to wrestle with,” King County executive Dow Constantine said Wednesday.

Some companies that have tried to address that question have discovered just how challenging it is. On Wednesday, Costco informed employees that workers at its corporate offices would not be allowed to work remotely. In an internal email reviewed by The Seattle Times, company executives justified the decision as “a matter of equity and fairness,” since workers at its retail locations “cannot work from home.”

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The move earned the scorn of at least one corporate employee, who said in an email to the Times that Costco has “every ability to let employees work from home and many successfully have and do. ... All of our lives are being put at risk just for profits.” The worker declined to be identified, and Costco did not respond to a request for comment.

But Baker and other public health officials say workplace efforts will be a crucial component of the fight to contain COVID-19.

“The workplace is a very important place for public health interventions to focus,” Baker said. “If you are able to control transmission in the workplace, then you are able to halt some transmission back into the community.”

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