Your Boss Says You’re an Essential Worker. What if You Disagree?

Mara is a Peet's employee who is studying to be a nurse.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Last week, Mara had a tough decision: go to work and potentially get sick, or stay home and make no money. Mara works at a Peet’s Coffee in the East Bay. She doesn’t want to use her last name for fear of reprisal.

Peet’s is just doing to-go orders, but it's staying open, arguing that it is an essential business. Mara disagrees. “We don’t even serve food, Mara says. “We serve coffee and pastries. That seems like a luxury right now.”

Serving coffee isn’t worth getting sick for, says Mara, who’s 24 years old and plans to go to nursing school. “It doesn’t seem fair to put others and myself at risk,” Mara says. So, she’s staying home. That means no income. Mara can’t collect unemployment because her business is still open and didn’t lay her off.

What businesses are truly essential during this pandemic? California’s public health officer released a 14-page-long list including food manufacturing, transportation and garbage removal.

The exact qualifications are subject to debate and interpretation. Because of expenses and considerations of shareholders, there is intense financial pressure on businesses to argue that they are essential and to remain open.

Carry-out and quick-service food service are allowed to stay open. A coffee shop is in more of a gray area. As Mara points out, Peet’s sells mostly coffee beans and drinks.

In a statement, Peet’s says “by staying open, we can serve our communities and provide work,” adding that it has closed locations that could not shift to a to-go model.

Mara says the company is staying open for the wrong reason: making money. “I know the explanation of why they’re open, and it’s because of profit,” she says.

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Many businesses have argued that they’re essential, like the video game retail chain GameStop, which finally closed after employee concerns went public. In Fremont, Elon Musk kept the Tesla plant open and only closed after days of pressure from the county and a whole lot of people on Twitter and Facebook.

Other companies with lower profiles are still telling employees to keep coming in to work. A worker named Ben says his bosses told him and others to come to the office, but to stay out of the public eye.

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He says his bosses told workers: " 'Don’t use the main entrance, park in the side lot that’s not visible to the public. Don’t be outside for the time being. The people that smoke can even smoke on company grounds instead of on the sidewalk.' "

To protect his job, Ben doesn’t want to use his full name. He doesn’t think of company he works for as essential — it’s a website where people can sell used cars. “I expressed my concern about coming in,” Ben says, “but my email was never responded to.”

Cities and counties are scrambling to figure out how to handle complaints about non-essential businesses without overwhelming law enforcement. Sheriff's offices are using complaints to identify potential violators of the essential business directive. In some cases they are negotiating with businesses, in other cases they're issuing warnings or citations.

In San Jose, residents are being urged to call 311 if they see a business that should be closed. Santa Clara County has set up a hotline, (408) 792-2300, and an email address: pubhealthreferral@dao.sccgov.org.

The Santa Clara County office has been flooded with calls and emails, which have led to the county investigating, warning and closing down places like a gaming arcade, a church and restaurants that are still serving sit-down meals.

Jeff Rosen is the District Attorney of Santa Clara County. “Conversations that we’re having with businesses or individuals about how they have to change their behavior are difficult,” Rosen says, “but conversations that we have to have with sons and daughters whose mothers or fathers have died because we as a community didn’t do everything we could to slow the spread of this pandemic? Those are impossible conversations.”

Absent comprehensive financial assistance from the federal government, businesses are in the same bind as individuals. There is intense economic pressure to continue operating as usual, even when doing so increases the chance that the virus will infect and kill more people.

Both Mara and Ben say they are luckily to have the resources not to work for the time being. But they worry about workers at non-essential businesses who don't have the same resources.