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Asking too much of workers

Of course, we can’t shut down indefinitely. But let’s not kid ourselves about who is bearing the burden for our return to normal in this pandemic.

A construction worker wears a protective mask and face shield by the gated entrance at the St. Regis Boston construction site.
A construction worker wears a protective mask and face shield by the gated entrance at the St. Regis Boston construction site.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Of course, we can’t shut down indefinitely.

But let’s not kid ourselves about who is bearing the burden for our return to normal in this pandemic.

It’s not the president, who has shown himself willing to sacrifice American lives on the altar of his reelection campaign. It’s not the cynical operators — the conservative powerhouses that brought us the fake-spontaneous Tea Party protests, the freelance Trump cultists and worse — ginning up anti-lockdown demonstrations around the country. It’s not Republicans in Congress, who have prioritized corporations over employees at every turn since this crisis began. Nor is it the corporate bigs and Wall Streeters who can safely isolate while they bay about the sputtering economy.

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It’s the workers. Many of their employers, including those represented by business groups in Massachusetts, are pushing for legislation to protect themselves from lawsuits if workers get sick during the pandemic and blame them wrongly (whatever that means), and they seem likely to succeed. If only their employees had that kind of juice.

There’s a tale being spun by some that those who want us to go slower on reopening are elite work-from-home types who don’t understand the plight of the good working folks who desperately need to put food on the table. Leaving aside the absolute failure of a society where the only choices are risk a deadly disease or go without, polls give the lie to this effete-liberal-vs-noble-working-man framing: A large majority of Americans surveyed, including most of those who have been stood down, believe we should keep businesses closed to stop the spread of the virus.

Now those same workers are being called back to their jobs, and they’re rightly afraid.

There is plenty of good in the reopening plan Governor Charlie Baker laid out Monday (though he is calling for hair salons to reopen too soon, on which more later). It’s gradual, has built-in brakes, and lays out requirements for keeping workers and customers safe. Among other things, it requires masks and coverings for most employees, and strict cleaning practices, though labor advocates say there aren’t enough protections. Employers will have to attest that they meet the standards before they can reopen. Violators will be given small fines, and if they don’t shape up, they’ll eventually be shut down.

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But boy, does the plan place a lot of faith in those employers. Perhaps that’s because the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board included so many business leaders, and zero labor advocates. If employers betray that faith, workers’ only recourse is to report them to local boards of health or to the under-resourced state Department of Labor Standards.

“There’s no real enforcement,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. “It passes the buck ... without any additional resources to ensure compliance.”

She and others have decried the lack of teeth in the governor’s reopening plan, and its lack of protections for whistle-blowers.

On Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Maura Healey announced that her office, too, will accept complaints, which will help. Though one shudders to think how many people will be exposed to greater risk while various authorities lurch into action.

Will all this be enough to protect workers like Frances? She’s the Newton colorist I wrote about in my last column, whose salon will reopen on May 25th — way too soon, given how closely she has to work with her customers and colleagues. Frances, who is using only her middle name for fear of losing her job, has collected her own personal protective equipment, because her boss wasn’t sure he could provide it. She said her salon will have more than 100 clients next week, from whom she and her colleagues will somehow have to maintain a safe distance in fewer than 800 square feet.

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“I’m just really shocked we have to do this,” she said. “It’s like we’re lab mice for vanity."

If she feels she’s exposed to too much risk, she said, she will call the health department and hope her boss doesn’t find out. But she’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.

She is hoping, that is, that the state’s faith in businesses is not misplaced.

We will soon find out.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.