States Reopen Businesses at Workers’ Expense

By Sandra Harris

Many states across the US are beginning to scale back shelter-in-place orders and push for businesses that have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic to reopen. Although over 5 million tests have been conducted in the US, it still has a lower per capita testing rate compared to countries such as Italy, where the virus outbreak was especially severe. The truth is that the deficient US healthcare system is still behind on testing and contract tracing, lacking in both resources and healthcare personnel.

On Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced the plan to lift certain restrictions on May 1, giving businesses only a few days to reopen. The “phased” approach allows restaurants, retail, movie theaters, and malls to reopen, but only at 25% capacity. Other states such as Georgia and South Carolina have pushed for more businesses to reopen at a faster rate, even receiving criticism from Donald Trump.

After reactionary protests in multiple states, Trump and many Republican governors are moving to get people off unemployment as soon as possible while giving the image that they protecting small business owners, largely to placate their own base. These politicians seek to score political points by attempting to restore the image of pre-crisis normalcy, however since the current crisis is primarily due to the inherent problems of the capitalist mode of production and not the coronavirus, these measures will do little to solve the massive unemployment problem and bring the economy to pre-crash levels.

Many jobless workers are now being faced with the choice to go back for even lower wages and increased health risks, or to lose the unemployment benefits keeping them afloat for refusing to go to work. State unemployment agencies have given little assurance that they will not cut off unemployment benefits, saying they will evaluate people not feeling safe to return to work on a “case-by-case basis.”

Over the past six weeks an unprecedented 30 million people in the US have filed for unemployment, with Congress adding an additional $600 on top of state unemployment checks for up to four months through July 31. Some business owners have lamented that unemployed workers are making ‘too much’ from unemployment and can’t entice their already underpaid employees to return for a fraction of these benefits. To encourage residents to go back to work, Georgia boosted the maximum amount workers can earn before they start losing their jobless benefits to $300 a week, up from $55.

For anyone working for tips, the capacity of restaurants drastically scaled back means they will be making significantly less money. Access to personal protective equipment or testing remains up to the businesses to provide, increasing the risk that many places will reopen without proper protections for workers.

The only recourse workers currently have if they feel unsafe is to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that their employer is not taking proper precautions. The US Department of Labor stated that concern about exposure to coronavirus is generally not going to be seen as enough of a reason to continue receiving unemployment benefits.

While Democrats balk at Republican leaders for reopening businesses in an effort to reinvigorate the waning hysteria surrounding the coronavirus, they ignore the fact that plenty of non-essential businesses like ice cream shops and liquor stores remained open throughout the shelter-in-place lockdown, regardless of the party affiliation of specific mayors and governors.

Democrats hide under the guise of protecting workers through the shelter-in-place orders, but have provided nowhere near the resources necessary to support people out of work; the majority of ‘frontline’ workers without proper protective equipment and hazard pay have not fared any better under their leadership. They use the police to enforce orders that primarily oppress Black, Chicano, and immigrant workers, who are also disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.

Both Democrats and Republicans use the powers of the old state to protect imperialism and maintain the exploitation of the working class, albeit through different means at times. These measures serve to obscure the underlying cause of the current economic crisis caused by overproduction, an unavoidable feature of capitalism, and shift the burden squarely onto the shoulders of the working class.