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Terence Corrigan

Corrigan's Commentary

Terence Corrigan is editor of the Times-Gazette.

Opinion

All the safety money can buy

Monday, April 6, 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic plays out I am, unfortunately, being reminded of an age-old adage — poverty is a fatal condition. With coronavirus, however, we are also learning that people who work in some jobs are not going to be protected. Workers are getting a message: the companies they work for may be deemed “essential” but they, the workers, are expendable.

Factory CEOs send out news releases they didn’t write, expressing concern for their ‘team members’ but you won’t see a CEO join the workers on the line to demonstrate how far they have gone to ensure safety for their workers. The CEOs are likely at home “sheltering in place.”

We heard about one person who works at a Shelbyville company who was told she couldn’t wear a face mask because it might scare other employees. She refused to comply and the company only backed down after they consulted with their attorneys. But, Tennessee is an “employment at will” state, which means her employer can fire her later without any reason or notice.

We heard from a grocery store worker in Tullahoma who said she was not allowed to wear a face mask because management was afraid it would upset customers. The high-end grocer she works for doesn’t want give the impression that the store may be harboring the virus.

With COVID-19 we are learning that being a member of the working class may also be a death sentence, for the workers and their friends or family members. As factory workers line up to clock in for work, cheek to jowl, they are not protected from the virus. The seemingly more conscientious employers boast that they are taking workers’ temperatures as they report for work but that won’t do much to stop the spread of this disease. Public health officials tell us this disease is transmittable for days before victims show any symptoms.

In Governor Lee’s order, he makes it clear that employers are only responsible for taking care of their employees to the “greatest extent practicable.” What does that mean? “Practicable” means “capable of being put into practice or being accomplished,” according to Webster’s. A synonym is “possible.” Who is going to decide what safety steps are possible?

While law enforcement is now being used to keep people from meandering about, there are no cops on the beat to ensure employers are doing what is possible to protect workers. Employers are left to police themselves and the counterbalance to safety is money. Workers will get all the protection their employer decides is worth the expense.