"I Feel Like a Hostage": Workers on the Risks They Face as Colorado Reopens

Chase Woodruff
On Monday, April 27, Colorado will start reopening for business.

"The challenge is: How do we create a sustainable way to live for the many months that the virus will be with us?" Governor Jared Polis told reporters during a press conference on April 15. "The answer's not staying at home for many months. It's not possible. It's not possible economically. People need to support themselves. Businesses need to exist....

"We need to find a sustainable way that we can live for many months. And at the same time make sure that we don't overwhelm the capacity of our health care system or hospitals to be able to give everybody that contracts COVID, and everybody that contracts another condition… a fighting chance, based on our high quality of health care, to get better and live their lives."

As of today, at least 672 Coloradans have died from the virus, and dozens more are added to the state's official count every day. In the last two weeks, growth in the number of confirmed cases has, at best, just barely leveled off. But the trend lines were enough for Polis to follow through on plans to lift his stay-at-home order at midnight tonight, April 26, bringing an end to the most restrictive social-distancing measures as the state transitions to a “Safer at Home” period. It’s a far more aggressive timeline for reopening than most of Polis's fellow Democratic governors have proposed, and it represents a major reversal of the state's long-held position that a dramatic increase in testing capacity would be needed to safely reopen non-essential businesses.

Several of the state's most populous counties, including Denver, have extended their own stay-at-home orders through May 8 — but there are already signs that the regional cooperation that local officials had hoped for is beginning to fray. Tri-County Health has extended its order in only two of its three counties, leaving out Douglas County, where officials had been under pressure from Republican lawmakers to end the shutdown last month. Weld County has gone a step further, unveiling a "Safer at Work" plan that defies Polis's new guidance and allows all businesses to reopen starting April 27. Polis released the brakes, and the train is leaving the station: Colorado’s reopening is under way.

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated workers in Colorado’s retail and service sectors, hundreds of thousands of whom have been laid off or furloughed in the last six weeks. Government relief, if it’s arrived at all, has been too little, too late; more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment. In this state, many residents have fallen behind on rent, utilities or student loan payments, or drained their savings accounts to stay afloat. They’re desperate for income — but many are also terrified of going back to work too soon, fearing that public-health departments and their employers won’t have enough testing capacity or other protective measures to keep them safe.

“I’m really scared about going back in, now that everyone’s talking about reopening,” says Grayson Landauer, who was laid off from a barista job at Denver International Airport in mid-March. “I feel like I’m being held hostage. You know — pay your bills but maybe get sick, or stay home and safe but left in a financial situation that’s terrifying.”

Asked last week whether the reopening will impact some workers more than others, Polis leaned on the feel-good slogan of the moment: “We’re all in this together.” But we’re not, really. The governor’s phased reopening plan will further reinforce what’s been true since the earliest days of the outbreak: It’s largely Coloradans working the lowest-paying, least secure jobs who are being asked to shoulder the highest levels of personal risk to keep the economy running. The grocery, food-processing and delivery workers who have worked throughout the crisis will be joined by retail and food-service employees long before many white-collar professionals will be asked to change their comfortable telecommuting routines.

The economic and racial disparities of the pandemic are clear. Black and Latino workers are far less likely to work jobs that can be done from home, and national statistics show that they are dying from the virus at higher rates. Data released by state health officials confirms that people of color are contracting the virus at a disproportionately high rate, with black Coloradans especially hard-hit. With more and more people set to go back to work — and no treatment, vaccine or robust testing regime to protect them — these disparities are likely to continue.

“This will kill people,” Landauer says. “It’s going to kill people, and it feels like no one cares.”

click to enlarge Traffic is down more than 60 percent downtown. - CHASE WOODRUFF
Traffic is down more than 60 percent downtown.
Chase Woodruff
Polis and his staff have made a valiant effort to convince Coloradans (and the rest of the world, as evidenced by the governor's appearance on CNN's State of the Union early April 26) that the stay-at-home order's expiration doesn’t mean a return to the pre-pandemic normal, but instead an incremental easing of social-distancing measures that will need to remain in place for months. The governor is adamant that this new phase won't lead to a steep drop in Colorado's social-distancing rates, and that people and businesses can be trusted to do the right thing. “It’s an opportunity to come back; in no way is it a mandate to go back,” he said during a press conference on April 22.

He closed his briefing with a direct appeal to Coloradans: "At the end of the day, we have a choice. You have a choice. It depends on your actions."

But many workers in the retail and service sectors won’t have a say in whether or not to reopen. Their employers will make the choice for them, and then they’ll face their own agonizing decision: Return to work and put themselves at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, or refuse, and likely lose their benefits or unemployment insurance?

“I feel like I’m not going to have a choice,” says Maddy Hughes, who works at the Tattered Cover store in LoDo and has been furloughed since last month. “It’s pretty much going to be choosing between surviving and paying my bills. I’ll be taken off of unemployment, which I just recently got, because you have to not be working at all to receive it. So even if I’m working minimal hours, I won’t be receiving unemployment.”

Briggs Harlan, a bartender and server at Snooze who was laid off in mid-March, says he’ll face a similar set of difficult choices when restaurants are finally allowed to reopen (that date has not yet been determined). After weeks of trying, he’s finally receiving unemployment assistance. But like any other recipient, if he’s offered his job back in the coming weeks and refuses it, he’ll lose eligibility. As a tipped employee, there’s no guarantee that he’ll make nearly as much as he used to in a food-service industry that will be under social-distancing requirements and likely struggling with low demand for months. And he worries about a spike in infections that could shut everything down again, leaving him right back where he started.

“I’m afraid that we could close again, and I’d go back to work for two weeks and then have to re-file for everything,” Harlan says. “That’s my biggest fear. Is it worth going back to work, even if I do get offered my job back? But if I do get offered a job, and I decide to put my health first and don’t take it — all of a sudden, the little that I would have coming in just disappears completely.”

Like many critics of his stay-at-home order, Polis has said repeatedly in recent days that the extreme social-distancing measures that have been in place for the last month are “not sustainable.” If that’s true, it’s largely because policymakers have decided it is; as recently as a few weeks ago, even moderate Democrats like Senator Michael Bennet were proposing sweeping aid packages that included recurring payments to nearly all Americans for the duration of the crisis. Like the promises of mass testing, such plans have quietly been shelved as the reopen-the-economy movement picked up steam among conservatives and business leaders.

As they wait for state and local governments to issue guidance on reopening and for their employers to decide when and how to call them back into work, many retail and service-industry workers are still in limbo. But rather than being forced to choose between financial hardship and unsafe working conditions in the coming weeks, some want the shutdowns to continue. They say that governments should keep providing relief — whether in the form of continued payments like this month’s $1,200-per-person federal stimulus check, or other measures like rent and mortgage cancellation — until more effective testing and treatment procedures are put in place.

“We need relief,” Landauer says. “We’re being told the safest thing we can do is stay home. Workers, through no fault of their own, are getting screwed. We shouldn’t have to die for the economy.”

The average person’s risk of dying from COVID-19 is low, and roughly nine out of ten people who contract the virus won’t require hospitalization. But those aren’t reassuring odds to employees who may be forced to return to work on the front lines of the pandemic in the coming weeks. Many have pre-existing health conditions that make them more susceptible to serious complications from the virus, or live with family members who do. They will return, in many cases, to jobs that don’t offer paid sick leave or health insurance and aren’t equipped to offer sufficient personal protective equipment.

More than a month into the crisis, even many essential workers still aren’t getting the support they need. Ron Ruggiero, president of Service Employees International Union Local 105, says that the vast majority of his union’s members — who include Denver-area health-care, janitorial and airport workers — are essential employees who have been working throughout the pandemic.

“We have stories of workers going to work sick, because when you lack paid sick time, that worker is forced into a horrible choice,” Ruggiero says. “There was one worker who was making masks out of paper towels. I’ve heard from members who were getting coughed on at work and didn’t have masks. There’s still lots of issues with personal protective equipment.”

Workers worried about the conditions they’ll soon face have found little comfort in the governor’s pronouncements. In explaining why he will allow personal-services businesses like beauty salons and tattoo parlors to reopen by May 1, Polis described them as having “one-on-one” interactions. But while customers may be able to use these services while coming into contact with just one person, hairstylists and other workers will now be asked to move from strict isolation to interacting with dozens of people per day, dramatically increasing their odds of contracting the virus.

One Denver-area hairstylist, who asked to remain anonymous, accuses Polis of “putting his concern of economic loss over his concern for human life.”

“We cannot abide [by] social-distancing requirements, as we have to stand extremely close while touching our clients for long periods of time,” says the hairstylist. “We will also face challenges with proper sanitation, as supplies are still hard to find in the store and online.”

“I'm scared,” she adds. “I don’t want to put my clients, co-workers, family or myself in danger.”

With testing capacity lagging, epidemiologists and public-health officials are still playing catch-up, working to understand how the virus has spread through essential workplaces over the past month, and how best to enforce safety protocols. On April 23, Tri-County officials issued an order to close an Aurora Walmart linked to at least nine confirmed cases and three deaths, following complaints from employees and shoppers about a lack of social distancing, mask-wearing and other precautions. Across the state, local health departments are about to have a lot more of these businesses to police.

“The government needs to step up and make sure people have what they need to work as safely as possible,” Ruggiero says. “If anyone is trusting big business to do what’s right, as we go into this phase of reopening, I can certainly say that is misplaced hope.”

click to enlarge Protesters asked that the state be reopened during Operation Gridlock last weekend. - EVAN SEMÓN
Protesters asked that the state be reopened during Operation Gridlock last weekend.
Evan Semón
In facing the public-health and economic crisis that will almost certainly define his governorship, Polis has been nothing if not true to himself. He’s led the kind of response you would expect from a self-confident, centimillionaire tech geek with libertarian leanings, earning praise for his scientifically fluent media briefings in the early days of the outbreak and drafting private-sector leaders into ad-hoc task forces like the “Innovation Response Team.”

Long a critic of strict government mandates, he’s been outwardly anguished over having to shut down private businesses because of a historic health emergency. On April 20, he pointedly contradicted a comment made by his health department’s COVID-19 incident commander, who said that the state would reopen only when it could guarantee everyone’s safety. ”There's no government, county or state that can keep you safe better than yourself,” Polis told reporters.

As the crisis deepened, Polis announced the creation of an Economic Stabilization and Growth Council to help guide the state’s long-term recovery efforts. Chaired by former Denver mayor Federico Peña, the council is composed mostly of leaders from the business and finance worlds, including Rockies owner Dick Monfort, venture capitalist Brad Feld and private-equity executive Blair Richardson.

The makeup of the council concerned labor and community groups. Shortly after its announcement, a coalition of advocacy organizations including SEIU Local 105, the Colorado People’s Alliance and the Colorado Working Families Party issued a six-part policy platform, calling on Polis and his economic council to institute emergency measures like paid leave, health care, stronger workplace protections and more. Their demands have mostly gone unmet.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” says Ruggiero. “There are a number of issues that have been raised, for over a month at this point, and there’s really not been action.”

No amount of reopening, no matter how fast or widespread, is going to be able to stave off the economic devastation that’s coming. The pandemic detonated an economic atom bomb across the world, and we’re going to be dealing with the fallout for years to come.

Without massive intervention by state and federal policymakers, this economic catastrophe will have a predictable effect: The rich will weather the storm, while almost everyone else will fall further behind. Even as they prepare to put their lives on the line to keep businesses open, many retail and service workers are in worse financial shape than ever. Landauer, a part-time student at the University of Colorado Denver, has had to use money saved for tuition to cover living expenses.

“I was so close to being able to graduate debt-free,” Landauer says. “I’m an honors student. I care about school. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen the way I wanted it to. I paid my rent, I’m not getting evicted, but I’m watching all of my hard work vanish.”

Harlan has worked in food service for years. He loves his job, he says, and dreamed of one day opening his own bar. But he, too, is having to dip into his savings just to get by, and as he watches so many established bars and restaurants struggling to survive, his goal seems even further out of reach.

“I’ve saved up a lot of money, and I’ve been able to plan financially in a smart way,” he says. “But I don’t care how good you are at that. If this continues on the way it’s going and we’re not really seeing the relief — not only with things like rent, but also financial support for businesses — I think the long-term ramifications of that are really, really scary for me.”

As they try to guide the country through the dark days of the pandemic, Polis and other politicians are promising that eventually, things will be back to normal. But like so many people who have had their lives upended by the crisis, Harlan says that it's given him a new appreciation for how unacceptable "normal" really was.

“The amount of hours that we put in every day, to make someone else money — you’ve got guys working ten, eleven hour days for fifteen bucks an hour in a 110-degree kitchen,” Harlan says. “We’ve already given so much, and now we have nothing to show for it. I hope when we come back from this thing — I think service-industry people should make minimum wage plus tips. I think that we should have health insurance. I think that we should have 401(k)s and retirement plans.”

“This pandemic just exposed how broken our systems have been, including our economy,” Ruggiero says. “The burdens of our economy and our society have been falling on low-wage workers, people of color and women, basically forever. What this pandemic has done has put everything into stark relief. So we don’t want to go back to normal. Normal was not working.”