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The Catch-22 of the COVID-Denying Boss

Without a safety net, quitting isn’t an option — and it’s a matter of when, not if, you get infected

Inside a small factory in Indiana, where a team of 30 operates a plant producing architectural stone typically used to adorn the outer layer of a concrete structure, Andrew, an employee who works in the shipping department, was holding his breath. On December 7th, around lunchtime, the inevitable nightmare had begun to unravel inside this factory, where COVID-19 is considered a hoax and the more than 270,000 people who’ve died as a result of the virus are, according to Andrew’s employer, not actually dead. “Four people called in today,” Andrew tells me. “They tested positive over the weekend.”

In spite of this latest disclosure, no emails had been sent alerting the rest of the employees that four of their own had contracted the deadly virus. There was no company-wide meeting on the schedule to discuss any concerns the other employees might have about their own health and safety. When your employer, according to Andrew, is a “hardcore QAnon type” who thinks that the virus is little more than “a Jewish plot to destroy America,” why would there be? 

“My direct supervisor in shipping asked the front office if we’d be shutting down, and they told him ‘no’ — they laughed at the notion,” says Andrew. 

Instead, those who’d been infected sent text messages to their friends who work in the factory to give them a heads-up that they’d be absent for a few days. From there, Andrew says, word began to spread. “It was one of the guys from production coming back to shipping and mentioning that four guys had called in,” says Andrew. Even at that time, his coworker, the one delivering the news, like nearly everyone else working inside the plant, wasn’t wearing a mask. In Indiana, where the positivity rate is 13.4 percent and 46,011 new cases were reported just last week, the usage of masks is merely part of the suggested guidelines for professional office settings. “The only concern I really picked up from anyone was what they’d do about bills and rent if the factory had to shut down for any legal or insurance liability reasons,” says Andrew.

News of this emergency came not even 24 hours after Andrew and I first spoke about what it’s been like to work for someone who doesn’t believe the virus is real. Over the course of our initial conversation, he lamented having to work for a company that shows little regard for his safety. “We’ve been open through the pandemic on the grounds that we’re tangentially related to construction,” he says. “That was management’s excuse to not go into a lockdown when our state did.”

He told me of conversations he’s had with his ex-wife about their concerns over how best to keep their kids safe at a time when their dad is put in harm’s way, day in and day out. “But it basically boiled down to, I have to go to my job as long as it’s open because otherwise we’re screwed,” he says. Their discussion led to a brief consideration of what it might be like for Andrew to keep away from his kids during the duration of the pandemic. But, he insists, that “would be unfair for everyone involved.” 

So the idea was quickly tossed aside, in favor of a cautious gamble. “We just got to kind of roll with what happens,” Andrew explained the night before finding out that his coworkers had contracted the virus. “If there’s something that became a specific, direct concern, it would be something to address — then we would consider not interacting for a couple of weeks to make sure — but nothing like that has come up.”

The next morning, after nearly 10 months of miraculously evading “the specific, direct concern,” it had finally entered the building. “I’m getting tested tonight,” Andrew vowed. “I have to find out whether or not my kids have been exposed.” 

In a country immersed in dueling COVID realities, it’s hardly surprising to find that some employers have maintained a similar stance to the White House when it comes to the seriousness of the pandemic. “I guess to summarize their beliefs, they think it’s just overblown,” Thomas, a 33-year-old sales executive working at a call center in New York City, tells me. “They either think masks are useless or unnecessary. They think we’ve all already had COVID so it doesn’t matter anyway.”

Thomas describes the office he’s working in as “living in 2019.” “Every day is a risk,” he says. “The office is fully operational — no social distancing, no mask-wearing.” Certain situations are more dangerous than others, “like riding the elevator with my maskless boss puts me at a direct risk every day,” he says. And so every day, Thomas is left wondering, “Is this the day I get COVID?” 

In one particularly infamous handling of employee welfare during the pandemic, NPR reported last month that while employees at a Tyson Foods plant in Iowa complained to health-care providers that they didn’t have sufficient personal protective equipment and that social-distancing guidelines were largely ignored, their managers at the plant were literally betting on their lives. A lawsuit filed by the family of a deceased employee states, “Around this time, defendant Tom Hart, the plant manager of the Waterloo facility, organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.”

In November, after the whistle had been blown, Tyson Foods Inc. suspended managers involved in the betting pool. But the suspension came too late for Isidro Fernandez, who worked at the pork plant before dying from COVID-19 complications on April 26th. He became at least the sixth employee at the Waterloo plant reported to have died during the outbreak, which infected 1,000 of its 2,800 workers. His death, while tragic and avoidable, wouldn’t have been a surprise: The plaintiffs, according to the NPR report, say “managers continued transferring employees between plants after some had tested positive for the coronavirus without requiring them to quarantine.” 

According to Michael Elkins, a labor and employment attorney and founder of the law firm MLE Law, private sector employees like Andrew and Thomas have little recourse in the event an employer isn’t taking the pandemic seriously. “Ultimately, the CDC guidelines concerning masks and social distancing are just that, guidelines,” he says. “Employers do have an obligation to provide a safe workplace,” however, “the failure to follow CDC guidelines likely doesn’t rise to the level of violating any federal law regarding workplace safety.”

Still, several meatpacking plants have been fined recently over lax coronavirus prevention and notification measures. Susan Wiltsie, an employment law partner with Hunton Andrews Kurth who specializes in OSHA compliance told the Washington Post in October that, “OSHA itself is ‘receiving an astounding number of complaints’ about employers.” 

But OSHA is facing criticism and lawsuits as well arising from their delinquent enforcement of worker safety laws during the pandemic. According to a report in The American Prospect, it wasn’t until early September, six months into the crisis, that the agency “issued citations to just two employers, requiring them to adopt safer practices.” As of the same month, OSHA had conducted just 199 inspections in response to employee complaints but had closed more than 8,500 of them without taking further action.

Elkins’ other suggestion for employees who suspect their employer is violating any local or state laws regarding COVID-19 guidelines is to contact their local authorities. But Thomas has tried doing just that, telling me that he’s called “311 [non-emergency municipal services] and anonymously made a complaint, but nothing has come from it.” 

It’s a result that sadly doesn’t surprise Elkins, who tells me that it’s also important to consider “how the term ‘taking the pandemic seriously’ is interpreted.” In other words, he says, since there is no standard on when an employer is considered to be taking the pandemic seriously, “a complaint may create further issues for employees alleging wrongdoing.” 

There is also the option of contacting human resources, whom, career advice expert for TopResume Amanda Augustine says, is supposed to be that safe place where you can lodge formal complaints. For Andrew, however, it’s effectively a dead end. “Our person who does HR is our owner’s daughter-in-law,” he says. “I need my job.” Which is why Andrew is equally concerned about his employer finding out that he, too, may have contracted the virus. “I can’t tell work if I have it,” he tells me. “Because there’s no paid sick leave.” 

In March, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides paid sick leave and paid expanded family and medical leave to help mitigate the exact predicament Andrew finds himself in. Though it applies to both public and private employers with 500 employees or less, for employers with fewer than 50 employees, there are exceptions. One specifically states that companies who don’t have a sufficient number of willing and qualified workers “to perform the labor or services provided by the employee or employees requesting paid sick leave” are exempt. Which is to say that the 30-person factory Andrew works at — already short-staffed — is legally allowed to stop paying Andrew if he chooses to quarantine.

The other option, per Augustine, is to quietly confer with colleagues to gauge whether they share your concerns. “There’s power in numbers; make a plan with those who are in agreement with you so that you can all communicate your concerns together,” she says. But Andrew tells me that he is alone in his concerns. The only coworker who also was worried about the company’s stance on the virus quit last week. 

When I ask him whether or not he’s considered doing the same, he tells me that he’s torn. “I wish that the people in charge of my company would take it seriously and would have done the right thing about it,” he says. But at the same time, he admits that since he lives in a country whose government has only provided a single check for $1,200 to help ease the financial burden of the pandemic, he’s pretty sure that if his company had shut down the plant, he’d be homeless.