25 Investigates: Many people are nervous to return to work amid COVID-19 crisis

As employees get called back to the post-COVID19 workplace, many tell 25 Investigates they have concerns.

BOSTON — In just a few days, Massachusetts will begin a four phased-approach to reopening and restarting the economy. Some industries and businesses will be allowed to resume operations next week, albeit with major restrictions. And as employees get called back to the post-COVID19 workplace, many tell 25 Investigates they have concerns.

Investigative reporter Ted Daniel looked into the legal recourse workers have if they do not feel safe returning to work during the pandemic, and found there are limited options right now.

“I probably am going to have to make use of that emergency drop off childcare center, as much as it scares me. I’m going put a mask on my son who has asthma and susceptible pneumonia and hope for the best,” said Lanna Heart, a single mother of two young boys who works at Cape Cod Hospital. “I don’t even take them to the grocery store. So to drop them off so I can return to work is a scary thought.”

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For nearly two months, most workers, including Heart, have had no other choice but to stay home with their kids because of Gov. Charlie Baker’s order to close all non-essential business and schools, including day cares.

“My biggest concern is for people in my position, single parents who have children,” she said.

Heart said she immediately thought of her boys when her employer called her to return to work, scheduling appointments in the cardiac catheterization lab at Cape Cod Hospital. She especially worries about her younger son, who has underlying health conditions.

25 Investigates also heard from a dental hygienist who asked to remain anonymous because her employer has not authorized her to speak with the media. She works in a dental office outside of Boston.

“There’s statistics out there that say that dental hygienists are actually at the highest risk for contracting COVID because of our close proximity with patients,” she said. The Massachusetts Dental Society has recommended dentists close practices and put off elective procedures and cleanings until Monday, May 18.

Extra safeguards – including increased sanitization, personal protective equipment and even temperature checks - will be in place when dental offices reopen to reduce risks for patients and workers.

Still, the dental hygienist we spoke to worries that will not be enough to protect her and her colleagues. But, she is afraid she may not have a choice.

“You know, if you don't want to go back then they'll just hire someone else. You know, there's a whole new round of graduates to choose from,” she said.

Michael Rustad, a law professor at Suffolk University, says a general concern of becoming infected with COVID-19 is not a valid legal argument to refuse to return to work. Under current law, if your employers calls you back to work and your refuse that could be grounds for termination, according to Rustad.

“From the employer’s perspective and the employee’s perspective, we have a climate of uncertainty,” he said. “Currently there isn't enough protection for workers and there should be some kind of ability to protect your own health and the health of your family because also by going back to work, you're not only assuming the risk for yourself, but you're assuming the risks for the family.”

As part of Gov. Baker’s plan to reopen the state in phases, industries with the least face-to-face interaction will be allowed to open first.

New mandatory workplace safety standards have been issued by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health ahead of the reopening. Employers will be required to “Provide training for employees regarding the social distancing and hygiene protocols” and “Establish a plan for employees getting ill from COVID-19 at work, and a return-to-work plan.”

In addition to the new safety standards issued by the state, employees also have federal protections. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide an environment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” OSHA is prioritizing enforcement of coronavirus-related safety guidelines. Employees who file OSHA complaints are supposed to be protected from retaliation.

For individuals who are afraid to return to work during the health crisis, our expert recommends talking to your boss and be specific about your concerns and needs. Ask your employer if any accommodations can be made. Some employers have been sensitive to workers’ concerns.

Lanna Heart, the single mother to two who works at Cape Cod Hospital, was given a 30-day furlough after she approached her boss with her concerns. The extra time will allow her to stay home with her kids until she can figure out a good child care option.

“They have actually been phenomenal throughout all of this and supportive,” a relieved Heart told 25 Investigates. She says she is grateful for the extra time and understands that it is a benefit many people will not get.

May 15, 2020 Editor’s Note:

Since this report first aired, the Massachusetts Dental Society tells 25 Investigates it has updated its guidance on reopening:

“Taking into consideration guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Dental Association (ADA), Massachusetts Department of Publish Health (DPH), and the Baker Administration, the MDS recommends that at the start of Phase 1—the “Start” phase—dentists may treat emergent and likely to become emergent cases. The state will be establishing criteria that providers must meet in order to resume such services in Phase 1. Dentists that satisfy this criteria may begin offering services for emergent—or at risk of becoming emergent—cases based on the provider’s clinical judgment. High-risk patients should be prioritized as providers begin setting appointment schedules. This recommendation supersedes the MDS’s previous guidance that dental practices close to all but emergency care until May 18.”

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