JEFFERSON CITY — Labor union leaders who represent state workers say Gov. Mike Parson is not doing enough to protect employees during the pandemic.
From a lack of personal protective equipment for prison workers to insufficient technical support for office employees who are working from home, the union officials said the situation is putting front-line staffers in danger.
“We need to get real,” said Danny Homan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61. “It’s time that this governor starts protecting state employees.”
State officials have been scrambling to keep government operations flowing since March when the coronavirus outbreak began shutting down offices and appearing in state-run facilities such as prisons, juvenile homes and nursing homes for military veterans.
Despite the active presence of the coronavirus in areas throughout the state, Parson is easing some of the stay-at-home and social distancing rules beginning Monday.
His administration also is warning that laid off workers in both the private and government sector cannot claim unemployment benefits if they refuse to return to their jobs.
Like other Republican governors, the administration has established a portal for employers to report workers who “refuse to return to work.”
Anna Hui, director of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said the federal government “has made it clear that general fear of COVID-19 will not support continuation of unemployment benefits under both the regular unemployment insurance program and the PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) program.”
“Therefore, if an employer provides the employee suitable work to return and the employee chooses not to return to work, then unemployment benefits will cease,” Hui said.
Parson’s administration has implemented a hazard pay program for some workers as an incentive to keep them on the job. Employees at state facilities can receive $500 per month as long as they show up to work every day.
But Tim Cutt, grievance officer for the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, said that can lead to employees coming to work if they are sick in order to receive the additional money.
Nancy Cross, vice president of Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union, said office workers who are being forced to work from home must use their own computers.
“We’re asking for the governor to step up and do what’s right,” said Cross, who represents workers at the state’s largest office building.
All of the labor officials said there has been a lack of protective gear for workers.
“State workers are not getting the personal protection equipment they need to protect themselves,” said Natashia Pickens of the Communications Workers of America, which represents workers at juvenile detention facilities, probation and parole employees and other front-line workers.
Hui said Parson’s new reopening order contains general safety guidelines for employers ushering employees back to work. She said local stay-at-home orders may still define essential businesses after Sunday, “and those would still guide local businesses in the recall of employees to work.”
Hui said workers that don’t typically qualify for regular unemployment benefits — such as gig workers or those with a limited work history — could qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance if they self-certify that they met one of 11 criteria, which range from being diagnosed with COVID-19 or being symptomatic and seeking a diagnosis, to being “severely limited” in “their ability to continue performing their customary work activities” because of the health emergency.
“One of these categories must still exist at the time of your weekly request in order to receive payment for that week,” she said. Hui said the U.S. Department of Labor has directed states to “notify, remind and enforce the policy that misrepresentation for the purposes of obtaining any kind of unemployment benefit is considered fraud and will be subject to prosecution, penalties and repayment.”