Austin City Council to vote on plan that would keep high-risk workers at home throughout pandemic

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — As more businesses plan to reopen by the end of this week, Austin city leaders are working on a plan to protect high-risk workers.

On Thursday, council members will vote on a resolution that would develop a “High Risk Strategy.” The plan would aim to keep anyone over the age of 65, anyone with a pre-existing medical condition and those who live with people in those groups working from home.

“Just because our state leaders are allowing more and more businesses to reopen, that doesn’t mean that we’re out of the woods,” Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison says.

Harper-Madison and three other council members are co-sponsoring the resolution.

“It came from calls to our office of older workers, of people who are immunocompromised who have heart disease, calling and saying, ‘My employer is calling me into work. What do I do?’” explained Council Member Greg Casar, who’s the lead sponsor of the resolution.

If the resolution is passed, the city would protect those workers and members of their households by stepping in when an employer insists they must work on-site.

“The city, through this strategy we’re voting on tomorrow, has a lot of options. One of them is going to be to work with that older worker to advocate for them to be in a remote job,” Casar said, explaining that could be at the employee’s current workplace or a new one.

Casar says the first choice would be working with a high-risk employee’s current employer, to figure out a temporary position in which that employee could work from home.

But council members tell KXAN part of the process would be helping employees find new jobs when they can’t safely stay at their current workplace.

“For some people, it might be a shorter term resolution. For other people, it might be a situation where they just really need to think about whether they need to shift their focus in terms of what their work is. It might be an opportunity for some people to get involved in a more stable work situation or a situation that’s actually more of an advancement for them from a work perspective,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen. “So that we offer them some actual real choices and alternatives to having to go back into a risky situation.”

The city would also help connect workers with pandemic unemployment assistance and work with employers to identify federal subsidies that could allow for paid sick leave. If all else fails, council members say the city would step in to support high-risk individuals through its own federal pandemic funding, like money from the CARES Act.

“This ecosystem is going to include us doing our part as a city, them doing their part as employers, and our communities doing their part to make sure the people we know and love are taking care of themselves and being careful,” Harper-Madison said.

Kitchen added that it’s important to not only protect that vulnerable population, but also to keep hospitals from reaching capacity. By encouraging those most at-risk for complication due to COVID-19 to stay home, city leaders hope many coronavirus hospitalizations can be avoided.

Casar says if passed, the plan would also help protect people who tes positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms of the virus.

“Some folks are scared of taking a test because they don’t feel sick, but they know that they might come back with a positive test, and then how are they going to pay the rent? Or how are they going to pay their mortgage?” Casar said. “It’s way cheaper to help that person stay home than to have to deal with a huge surge in cases.”

Casar says recently, as the city has tried to test workers at construction sites, where clusters have been found, the majority of construction workers have refused to be tested out of fear of needing to miss work.

“Unfortunately, the state of Texas has sued the city of Austin to block our law that would have guaranteed that everyone in the city gets paid sick time right now when they need it so bad,” Casar said. “So we’re putting together a better system to make sure that those people get paid sick time from their employer or get sick time under the new federal law so they stay at home and don’t potentially get lots more people sick.”

Casar says the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires a lot of employers to give employees paid sick leave in light of the pandemic, however many people aren’t aware that it covers them.

“Then, those employers that got exempted and that don’t have to require sick time, we need to advocate to them and push for them to still give sick time for the good of them and the whole economy,” Casar said.

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