TOPEKA, Kansas — The economic shutdown driven by the COVID-19 outbreak put Sherri Calderwood out of work.
Then her job waiting tables opened up again.
But that opportunity came with a tough choice, one she shares with millions of other Americans: Somehow manage without a paycheck or risk her health earning a living.
Several years ago, she had a blood disease that required doctors to remove her spleen, a fist-sized organ that helps the body fight infection.
With a weakened immune system, Calderwood fears returning to work at Topeka’s Hanover Pancake House, a diner that’s been her “home away from home” for the past 21 years.
“I’ve always felt safe,” she said, “Now I don’t, and I don’t know how to handle it.”
Closed for more than a month, the restaurant reopened a few weeks ago for carryout orders. Eager to overcome her fears, Calderwood volunteered to work a partial shift hoping it would prepare her to come back full time when the dining room reopened the following week.
“I was so excited,” she said.
That excitement turned to panic when she overheard a few coworkers talking about how they had largely ignored Gov. Laura Kelly’s stay-at-home order while the restaurant was closed.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I haven’t left my house and here I am standing with people that have been out running around,’” Calderwood said.
“So, the panic attack got worse,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe.”
Seeing Calderwood in distress, owner Scott Albrecht walked her to the door and told her it was OK to stay home for another couple of weeks.
Still in tears, she couldn’t make herself leave.
“I thought, ‘If I walked out this door, I’m never going to have my job back,’” she said.
Calderwood is determined to show up for work on May 18 even if she hasn’t entirely put her fears to rest.
“I just have to suck it up and do it,” she said. “(The job) isn’t just my livelihood, it’s my life.”
Calderwood’s anxiety mirrors that of untold others forced to weigh the need to pay their bills against the risks of returning to work with cases of COVID-19 still on the rise.
Buttressing those concerns are reports of the virus’ toll on essential workers forced to stay on the job during the height of the pandemic.
Soaring infection rates in southwest Kansas meatpacking plants also serve as a cautionary tale to people being called back to workplaces where mitigation measures are hard to put into practice.
At the restaurant, Albrecht has rearranged tables and blocked off every other booth to comply with social distancing rules. He’s purchased masks for his workers but doesn’t require that they wear them. However, they are required to disinfect tables and chairs after every use.
Some retailers are encouraging people to wear masks and attempting to make social distancing easier by reconfiguring areas where people gather such as checkout lines.
Those kinds of basic precautions, said Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, significantly reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
“But you cannot mitigate risk down to zero,” he said.
Employers that ignore mitigation guidelines or half-heartedly enforce them are Karen Davis’ concern.
She said she lost her job in a Johnson County dental clinic because she questioned whether enough was being done to protect patients and employees.
“I ended up only working there like a day and a half,” Davis said. “I just knew it wasn’t safe.”
Since going public with her concerns, Davis has fielded a steady stream of complaints from other hygienists afraid to confront their bosses.
“They’re private messaging and calling me,” she said.
Among other things, Davis worries some clinics aren’t providing hygienists with masks capable of blocking particles put into the air by common procedures such as cleaning or scaling teeth.
The head of the Kansas Dental Association said his members “understand the gravity of the situation” and are taking steps to ensure the safety of their workers and patients.
Even though there have been “no instances of COVID-19 transmission from dental treatment,” KDA Director Kevin Robertson said in a recent letter to the governor, Kansas dentists are providing a “heightened level of infection control” as they resume practicing.
That includes screening patients for the virus, expanding the use of personal protective equipment and adhering to social distancing safeguards, Robertson said in the letter co-signed by the association’s president and the chair of its reopening task force.
People worried about returning to work because of an underlying health condition or an employer’s failure to take steps to mitigate the spread of the virus have options, at least when it comes to collecting unemployment.
In some states, workers who decline to return to work are no longer eligible for benefits. But Kelly decided to handle those situations differently in Kansas.
“We are going to deal with that on a case-by-case basis,” she said.
That means people can continue receiving benefits as long as they “have good cause for declining the work,” said Laurel Klein Searles, the head of the unemployment division at the Kansas Department of Labor.
Kansans on unemployment who refuse a job offer must notify the agency when they file their weekly claim, Klein Searles said. The employer who extended the offer should also alert the agency that it had been declined, she said.
To avoid he-said-she-said disputes, Klein Searles said, people claiming to have an underlying health condition should be prepared to provide supporting documentation.
“We need that,” she said, “to prove, ‘Yes, I am at high risk and I do have good cause for rejecting this job offer.’”
Nearly 240,000 Kansans have filed for unemployment since March 14.
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.