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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Council approves strategy to protect high-risk workers

Groups who remained on the job as the coronavirus pandemic emerged in Austin and Travis County, including those working in construction, retail and health services have become main clusters for the coronavirus.

As more high-risk workers prepare to return to their jobs with restaurants, bars, salons and other businesses reopening, Austin City Council members are calling for a unified strategy to protect people from the outbreak as best they can.

The council on Thursday approved a resolution brought forward by Council Member Greg Casar aimed at providing increased protections to workers who are most likely to catch and be hospitalized by the coronavirus, or those with vulnerable people living in the same household.

Such protections could include ensuring workers are allowed to do their jobs through telework, providing increased access to unemployment insurance, ensuring employers implement proper safety measures and connecting those who can’t participate in those programs to jobs and economic support that meets their needs. The resolution also calls on city officials to create a task force composed of community members, and open to the public, that can help to more quickly identify areas of need.

Casar said in a message to fellow council members Tuesday that they need to ensure all working Austinites feel comfortable taking COVID tests, that those who are sick are able to stay home with pay, and that all area residents who are over 65 years old, have underlying conditions, or who live with a high-risk individual are supported if they stay home.

He said Thursday that specific measures to protect older workers will likely translate into the most significant tools to save lives in coming months, along with ensuring those who return to work have access to paid sick leave, and focusing on communities of color which have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.

Mayor Steve Adler said a key component to fighting the coronavirus is in recognizing that there are some areas of the city where real crises will develop. The first sector to see that was area nursing homes, which by the end of April had seen more than two dozen deaths from COVID-19 among residents and staff. “Nursing homes became one of the first and continues to be a strong example of that, but in the communities of color in our city, for lots of reasons, that’s becoming now the real focal point, as evidenced through the numbers have moved through time,” Adler said.

Adler said the city’s black community is the most disproportionately represented group in deaths from the virus, while members of the Hispanic community are testing positive for the virus in numbers that indicate outbreaks within the community will be hard to control.

The resolution outlines several options for possible actions, including more direct financial assistance to those impacted by the virus, and possible guidelines for safety enforcement at job sites.

Getting low-wage workers or those without paid leave or wage protections access to paid time off during the pandemic has been an issue throughout the state. Many workers, like restaurant and small business employees and unauthorized immigrants, do not have access to health insurance through their employers. That leaves many struggling with whether to protect themselves and others by staying at home, or to take risks to pay for groceries, bills and rent.

In the beginning of the pandemic and in the weeks that followed, the council approved several measures to halt evictions so people wouldn’t be forced from their homes during the crisis. But many called on the council to cancel rent payments altogether.

The council does not have the authority to cancel rent or mortgage payments, force local businesses to offer paid sick leave or close their doors, nor can they enforce safety rules related to things like masks and social distancing with civil or criminal punishments, which were barred by statewide orders from Gov. Greg Abbott. They can, however, issue guidelines, allocate funding to those affected and pursue educational outreach to let people know how to protect themselves and others.

Austin leaders have approved $15 million in direct assistance to individuals through the RISE Fund, along with $1.2 million in rental assistance through a lottery that began in early May. That lottery had drawn 10,000 applicants as of last Wednesday, 5,500 of whom qualified for help. However, only 1,000 will receive checks.

Austin health officials say they know such economic burdens are keeping people from seeking testing and staying home, even if they present symptoms. Interim Austin Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Tuesday that local health officials are investigating 36 clusters of cases among construction, retail and health services employees, more than half of which come from general contractors.

Escott presented figures from two targeted testing operations and two separate construction sites on May 7 and 8 that showed just under 8% of those tested were positive for the virus. Casar, however, said only 40% of workers agreed to take a test.

“There’s a reason why the other 60% are not (testing),” Adler said. “We need to figure out how to crack that nut.”

By Mark Wilson

Austin-American Statesman

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