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As businesses open, will older or vulnerable workers return?

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There’s no social distancing for Venda Ripke at work. The 41-year-old teacher often gets face-to-face with the young students in her special-education classes at Newcastle Elementary School.

Students with learning disorders, autism and other conditions benefit, she says, from the close interaction. And that’s a problem in the age of coronavirus, especially since Ripke has Type 1 diabetes and other medical ailments.

“I am a disabled person and I work with students who are disabled,” says Ripke, who hasn’t taught at the Reseda school since the Los Angeles Unified School District sent students home in March. “I feel like I can’t even walk outside of my home. Imagine if I were being asked to return to work.”

With some 39 million Americans filing jobless claims since the pandemic broke out and fears growing of another Great Depression, getting workplaces open has become a priority. That’s a tricky proposition as the number of coronavirus cases and deaths mount, even if the rate of transmission slows in some places. But for workers especially vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, a return to work can feel like a death sentence. That’s not a small group.

Some 41 million Americans ages 18 to 64 are at risk for serious complications from COVID-19 due to underlying conditions such as diabetes, uncontrolled asthma and heart disease, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. Also at risk are Americans 65 and older, about 10.4 million of whom remain in the workforce — an age group that accounts for 80% of U.S. COVID deaths.

Already there’s evidence vulnerable communities are paying a price, with African Americans, Latinos and other minorities dying at higher rates than their white and Asian counterparts, according to a Times analysis. Several factors account for the disparity, among them the fact such groups are more likely to work consumer-facing jobs and have underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

“COVID has really brought to the forefront a sense of vulnerability that is much bigger than we thought,” said Eileen McNeely, executive director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s SHINE program, which researches how to develop sustainable and healthful workplaces. “We’ve all now started to pay attention to who’s dying at greater rates.”

While federal law provides special protections for workers who have disabilities or are older, ultimately they can be recalled to the workplace, even if it can’t be made 100% safe. And should employers try to prevent certain employees from returning to their jobs, they could face discrimination claims from older workers and disabled workers.

The complications of returning millions to the workplace has prompted a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is seeking broad liability protections for employers in case workers or customers get sick, while the AFL-CIO filed a lawsuit Monday demanding the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue tough emergency standards to better protect workers.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a temporary executive order creating a presumption that if a worker gets sick it was contracted on the job, funneling such cases into the workers compensation system.

However, the issues involving vulnerable workers are even more complex.

Workers who are diabetic or asthmatic or have other conditions that are considered disabilities are offered special protections by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to provide so-called “reasonable accommodations” as needed. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act offers workers older than 40 protections against discrimination on the basis of their age.

Questions linger about whether and how such protections will shield workers who are older or have medical conditions in the time of the coronavirus.

“It’s definitely a minefield for employers,” said Walter Stella, a labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor, which represents employers. “The traditional reasonable accommodation analysis requires employers to accommodate disabled employees so that they can continue to perform the essential functions of their jobs. The focus of the law is not to give employees a reasonable accommodation so that they don’t get the coronavirus.”

That legal analysis rubs up against the demands of employee advocates who say that providing a safe workplace is the fundamental duty of employers amid the pandemic. Practically speaking, though, Stella agrees that driving the interactions between employers and employees will be the issue of workplace safety as more businesses open with no proven therapeutics for COVID-19 and a vaccine possibly a year or more off.

In some places, a vulnerable worker may feel protected simply if social distancing, masks and other now-common safety practices are in place for all workers. That may not be adequate, though, elsewhere or in jobs that typically require close interpersonal interaction.

“It’s kind of getting into the weeds, if you will, of looking at that workplace, looking at the jobs to figure out an accommodation,” said Nellie Brown, a certified industrial hygienist and director Workplace Health and Safety Programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Making an accommodation is not always difficult. A vulnerable worker could continue to telecommute while others return to the workplace, or could be given an office with a closed door. In a factory, such a worker could be put at the end of the assembly line.

But those are simple examples and they may not be adequate. Among the most notable COVID-19 outbreaks have been meatpacking plants, where employees work in confined spaces on fast assembly lines, prompting complaints by labor of inadequate safety equipment and forcing temporary shutdowns.

And there are the situations facing workers like Ripke, who can’t imagine how she could properly conduct her job either remotely or using a mask while practicing social distancing. “It’s such a hands-on and close and personal position that I’m in. I’m working with small children. Kindergarten through fifth grade. They don’t understand the hand-washing and the mask on the face,” she said.

In response to Ripke’s concerns, a district spokesperson said LAUSD is working with various agencies with a goal to “provide employees, including those with COVID-19 vulnerabilities, every opportunity possible to continue to work.“

There are other options for workers like Ripke, but they are not necessarily ideal. One would be using personal leave time — something Ripke fears she may be forced to do. But with the pandemic not expected to vanish for a long time that would be only a temporary solution.

Employers also may assign such workers to safer jobs. While that’s a possibility in large corporations or school districts, it may not be an option at small businesses, where a worker could just be be out of luck.

“At some point it just may be that the person is eligible for retirement or disability retirement but that’s it. The employer would have fulfilled its duties under the ADA. Employers do not have to indefinitely keep anybody on leave,” said Sharon Rennert, senior attorney advisor in the EEOC’s ADA division. “Basically it’s going to be termination.”

Or workers might just leave or retire of their own accord whether vulnerable or not, something that employers in essential businesses where interaction with public is a core part of their job have already experienced.

“I know we have had some associates that have not come back to work and they probably just do that out of self-preservation,” said John Votava, director of corporate affairs at Ralphs, the supermarket chain, which has remained open throughout the pandemic.

Departing the workplace, however, is unlikely to be an option desired by most older or medically vulnerable workers, who either need the money or enjoy their jobs.

Attorney Wendy Musell, past president of the California Employment Lawyers Assn., a trade group of attorneys that represent employees, said the pandemic is likely to present novel cases involving workers who feel their health is being put at risk — but also those who don’t want any special treatment.

“There are older workers and individuals with disabilities who want to come to work,” she said. “If the employee says, ‘You know what. I can wear a mask. I can be in my office. This is not an issue,’ and the employer says, ‘We are not going to allow you to go to work,’ I think there are going to be some interesting cases.”

Stella agreed, noting there is a potential for “no good deed goes unpunished: for being too protective for certain employees and then having those employees saying, ‘Well wait a minute. This isn’t just. You are treating me differently because of my age or because of my medical condition.’”

Indeed, the AARP is fearful that the gains older workers have made in the workplace could be lost in the current environment, as employers seek to minimize the risks they and employees face from a disease that has hit the elderly particularly hard. It’s recommending continuing to allow them to telecommute if possible.

“Employers need to be super thoughtful as they bring back their workers,” said Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resilience programming at the advocacy group. “But we certainly don’t want this to be a way to institutionalize age discrimination. Pre-pandemic, things were going really well for older workers.”

While the federal age discrimination law doesn’t require employers to offer reasonable accommodations for older workers, it does require that employers offer equal opportunities for workers who are 40 or older. Practically speaking, that would bar employers from establishing a blanket policy keeping workers older than a certain age from returning to the workplace.

“There is nothing magical about 59 to 60, and you could have workers who are in tip-top shape at 59 or 60 and workers who are 25, 35, 45 who are not,” Musell said. “I think this is going to be very touchy.”

And that’s especially so in an era when baby boomers move toward retirement, yet remain in the workplace in large numbers.

Ashley Martin, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said there is age prejudice from younger workers who think older ones are blocking their ability to move up or are sucking up financial resources through healthcare, retirement and other benefits.

“There is already a sense that they are sacrificing a lot of what they should have because older people are still around and still working and living longer than ever,” she said. “I am concerned about it.”

She noted research that showed mothers who took flex time experienced bias and recommended that employers frame policies that would benefit older workers as ones available to all employees. “What they are doing for older workers should be either framed as a holistic policy or implemented at a holistic level,’ she said.

Amid the unanswered questions, employees and employers alike have been looking for some clarity.

In Washington, a top priority of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is getting employers a so-called “legal safe harbor” from lawsuits by employees or customers who allege they acquired COVID from a place of business. The proposal is supported by some leading Republicans but opposed by Democrats and labor.

The chamber’s National Return to Work Plan also seeks legal protections arising from alleged violations of the ADA and the age discrimination act — such as from workers who say they were delayed in returning to work, returned to work too soon, or not provided reasonable accommodations.

Neil Bradley, chief policy officer of the U.S. chamber, said that while talks have focused on broad “exposure liability,” the issue of discrimination claims has not been left out. “We have absolutely had discussions with lawmakers around making sure that following public health guidance doesn’t trip you somehow,” he said.

The chamber’s proposals are based on the idea that if employers follow established public health guidance, they should not be stuck with the cost if workers or customers get sick, but employee advocates say that the law already provides enough legal protections for employers. Musell calls the Chamber proposal involved the ADA and age discrimination act a “nonstarter.”

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO has challenged the notion that there are adequate national standards even as the Centers for Disease Control, the EEOC and various state and local agencies have issued a tumult of workplace regulations and guidance. It filed an emergency petition demanding that OSHA issue legally binding COVID workplace standards.

In response, a department spokesperson called the lawsuit “counterproductive: and said the agency is “working around the clock” to protect American workers.

In the meantime, businesses are already opening across the nation — a process that will provide some clarity in itself, said Stella, of Cozen O’Connor.

“No one really knows how this is going to play out until the economy really starts to open up and everybody returns back to work,” he said.



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Coronavirus is a defining test for Thailand’s powerful business families

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With the coronavirus crisis hammering Thailand’s economy and millions of citizens registering for cash handouts, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha recently made an unusual public appeal to the kingdom’s powerful billionaire business families, asking them to “do more”.

“I would like to ask you if you could do more in utilising your abilities and talents in helping and healing the people of Thailand, who are suffering very badly, in a quicker, more efficient manner,” he wrote in an open letter to 20 of the country’s richest people last month. 

Thailand has confirmed just over 3,000 coronavirus cases and 57 deaths. This is a relatively light caseload but the disease has devastated the country’s tourism sector and many of its industries, turning this year into a defining one for Thailand’s billionaire-led conglomerates — companies that grew rich over decades in symbiosis with the ruling establishment and are now being asked to pay back. 

Thais sometimes speak of the “five families” that control much of their economy, who built sprawling businesses from modest beginnings in Bangkok’s Chinatown: the Chearavanont family controls Charoen Pokphand; the Chirathivats are behind department store operator Central Group; the Sirivadhanabhakdi family controls drinks group ThaiBev; the Srivaddhanaprabhas are the family behind duty-free giant King Power, whose assets include Leicester City football club; and Yoovidhya family members are major shareholders in Red Bull, the energy drinks business co-founded by the late Chaleo Yoovidhya.

“Big business groups and family-owned conglomerates exist in all countries,” said Pavida Pananond, associate professor at Thammasat Business School. “But the extent of wealth and power that they control in Thailand is much more concentrated.”

At the top of Mr Prayuth’s intended targets was Dhanin Chearavanont, the 81-year-old scion of Thailand’s richest family and honorary chairman of CP, the largest of the family groups and one of Asia’s biggest conglomerates.

Even before Mr Prayuth had sent his letter, CP was already at work on a $3m mask factory outside Bangkok, which it built in just five weeks and handed over to a leading hospital and the Thai Red Cross Society. 

In the same week as Mr Prayuth’s appeal, the company announced donations of coronavirus test kits, protective equipment, food for frontline medical personnel, and other assistance totalling Bt700m ($22m). 

“We are a company in Thailand, we are part of Thailand,” Suphachai Chearavanont, CP’s chief executive and Mr Dhanin’s son, told the Financial Times in an interview. “If Thailand has a problem, under this circumstance we are all in it together. We have to survive this situation as a country.” 

Perhaps most crucially for Thailand’s largest private-sector employer, the group also promised to protect the jobs of its 300,000 employees. 

“One of the things the prime minister was pushing was, ‘please don’t fire your people’,” said Jessica Vechbanyongratana, assistant professor of economics at Chulalongkorn University. “He was saying companies had a responsibility to keep them employed during the crisis, and not to put an additional strain on the government.”

CP’s reach runs from the seeds and animal feed it sells to farmers to poultry and seafood processing and restaurant and retail operations, including Thailand’s more than 12,000 7-Eleven stores. 

Overseas, CP is best known for launching a successful $10.6bn bid to buy Tesco’s Thai and Malaysian supermarkets, in what would be Asia’s biggest acquisition this year. Thailand’s competition office is reviewing the deal because of the commanding retail footprint it would give CP, which also owns Siam Makro, the country’s biggest cash and carry chain.

Mr Supachai limited his remarks to the FT to the company’s Covid-19 response and declined to comment on the transaction, other than to say CP is “moving forward with the deal”. 

Dhanin Chearavanont, the 81-year-old scion of Thailand’s richest family and honorary chairman of CP Group, pictured in 2012 © Bloomberg

Other tycoons who have offered help include Thai-German Harald Link, chief executive and owner of the conglomerate B. Grimm, which offered Bt46m of coronavirus aid. Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth, owner of Bangkok Airways and Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, pledged Bt100m for digging ponds and wells in drought-stricken areas.

Central Group vowed to cut prices for some consumer essentials, make medical donations and preserve jobs for its 74,000 staff. 

However, Thailand’s billionaire conglomerate owners have made it clear they will not be giving the state any money.

Mr Suphachai pointed out that Thailand was in far better shape to handle the economic fallout of Covid-19 than in 1998, when the Asian financial crisis caused the country’s financial system to teeter. 

“For Thailand, this is a good time for the government to borrow and invest more in infrastructure and in supporting the transformation of all the major industries,” Mr Suphachai said. Mr Prayuth himself clarified that he wanted the billionaires’ advice, not money, after critics accused him on social media of heading a “beggar government”. 

CP has offered the government a white paper listing ideas ranging from transforming farming and tourism with the help of digital technology to using tax breaks to lure skilled foreigners to work in the kingdom.

“Singapore has 6m people, of which 2m are foreign workers,” Mr Suphachai said. Thailand, with its larger population, could afford to accommodate “5m knowledge workers from around the world”. 

CP has actually hired during the pandemic, confirming some Thais’ belief that it can profit in all business conditions. Its 7-Eleven convenience stores, which were allowed to remain open during lockdown, recruited 20,000 staff to accommodate home deliveries. 

“We are moving forward, we are looking at Thailand in the long term,” Mr Suphachai said. “We will be here forever.” 

Follow John Reed on Twitter: @JohnReedwrites

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.



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Some businesses better off staying closed: Chamber president – BC News

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Some businesses could be better off staying closed than risk re-opening during the second phase of the B.C.’s government’s plan to safely and gradually re-open the economy, according to Val Litwin, president and CEO, BC Chamber of Commerce.

“This crisis isn’t over for BC businesses. You can go out of business much faster with a partial or failed reopen than you can a temporary closure,” Litwin said. “Policy-makers must appreciate that business models will be very fragile during this early stage of the recovery cycle and that ongoing supports will be essential.”

Only 26 per cent of businesses impacted by COVID-19 feel able to restart and operate profitably with the gradual easing of restrictions, according to a survey of 1,343 member-businesses of the BC Chamber of Commerce, Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, Business Council of British Columbia, and other partners. 

The survey, conducted with the Mustel Group, was released May 22.

Given the challenges to restarting operations, over half of the members surveyed (55 per cent) expect it will take at least two months to restart.

The survey also found that 43 per cent of  businesses expect that they will still require significant and additional financial support or incentives from the provincial and federal government in order to continue operating. 

One of the challenges for business tenants is paying the rent.

The survey found that 26 per cent of commercial tenants were unable to pay their rent in full in April. The primary reason is that they were shut down and had no revenue (75 per cent). Others had no access to the federal Commercial Rental Assistance ( 30 per cent), while 19 per cent said they could not come to terms with their landlord.

In terms of businesses that have closed temporarily, the level is slightly higher in urban markets (50 per cent) than in rural (42 per cent), with the incidence highest in healthcare and social assistance; arts and entertainment; and accommodation and food services, all above 68 per cent.

Among retail establishments, 58 per cent will remain closed, at least temporarily. 

“The survey data shows virtually all respondents continue to experience lost revenue as a result of COVID-19 and restart efforts will be hampered by an inability to attract new and returning customers. We are facing the worst year for B.C.’s economy and job market in a century,” said Greg D’Avignon, president & CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia. He called on governments to “expedite economic activity and address competitiveness barriers in the form of tax, regulatory and process costs that stand in the way of businesses re-hiring the nearly 400,000 employees who’ve lost their jobs.”

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Brunswick business put on ice due to work permit rule

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BRUNSWICK, Ohio — When COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic in mid-March, Brunswick resident Celeste Compola watched subsequent school and business closures with the somewhat heightened anxiety of all small business owners.

“When (Gov. Mike DeWine) announced the essential businesses and was asking food trucks to help at rest areas, I thought, ‘Cool, I’m a food truck,’” said Compola, owner of Celeste’s Tasty Treats Food Truck, an ice cream business she started three years ago after working for another company for two years.

Working in her hometown during the summer of 2020, however, has proved more complicated that Compola could have imagined.

As has been the case for the past two seasons, Compola received her approval from the Medina County Health Department and applied for a vendor’s permit in Brunswick in April.

“But when I dropped (the vendor’s permit application) off at the police department, I was told no,” she said.

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the city has temporarily suspended the issuing of permits to door-to-door solicitors. As it turns out, ice cream trucks are categorized as door-to-door solicitors in Brunswick.

“It wasn’t until coronavirus that this was brought to anyone’s attention,” Compola said. “Of all the ways I thought I would be affected by COVID, I never thought it would be this.”

Revisiting business designation

While the issue is being addressed by the city, a resolution is not expected before the next City Council meeting on June 8 — meaning the last few months is time Compola will not be able to recover, even though she has been permitted to operate in surrounding communities.

At a May 19 Economic Development Committee meeting, City Councilman Joe Delsanter said that while there are additional precautions that need to be taken with a business that predominately serves children — such as an ice cream truck — the business itself is essentially a food truck, in his opinion.

“At Honey Hut, you might have 40 cars wrapped around (the building),” Delsanter said. “The only difference here is that the vendor is coming through the neighborhood.”

Economic Development Committee chairman Councilman Nick Hanek moved to have the city law department further review the ice cream truck designation, for possible legislation as soon as the June 8 council meeting.

The committee agreed with Hanek’s motion, but Delsanter said he hopes Celeste’s Tasty Treats’ dilemma can be resolved without the need to “write a law,” due in part to the seasonal nature of the business and the time and money Compola has already lost.

Councilman Anthony Capretta echoed these sentiments in an interview last week with the Brunswick Sun.

“This is an exception to the rule,” Capretta said. “We are stopping treats for kids because of this COVID thing. If (City Manager Carl DeForest) isn’t going to put his name on (the permit), I’ll put my name on it. We will keep fighting until this lady gets her permit.”

Emotional toll

Compola said Brunswick makes up about 75 percent of her customer base. But the emotional strain of the permit denial, she said, has had at least as much of an impact as the financial loss.

“I will make a full recovery,” she said. “This community and I have really clicked. But I live here, and I can’t even drive out of town to do a private party, or park the truck in my driveway, without breaking a bunch of hearts.

“The kids don’t understand (why Compola is not permitted to stop). It’s had an effect on an emotional level. Yeah, it has really affected me.”

Read more news from the Brunswick Sun.

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