Bosses stretch the definition of who is 'essential' — and workers take the risk

Polly Mosendz and Anders Melin, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

"The bearer of this letter," the document says, "is providing life-sustaining and essential services."

That depends, of course, on how you define essential, a word some businesses are trying to stretch as far as they can.

Copies of the "travel authorization letter" were distributed to employees of Leslie's Poolmart Inc. to display if they're pulled over for violating shelter-in-place orders when they're on the way to their shifts. They are vital workers in the coronavirus pandemic, according to Leslie's, because the chain sells chemicals that can be used as alternatives to hand sanitizers and because swimming pools that aren't properly cared for can be health hazards. Many of Leslie's more than 900 locations remain open.

Craft-supply chains Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Jo-Ann Stores Holdings Inc. have maintained they're essential, too, because they sell materials for makeshift face masks. GameStop Corp. was criticized after it resisted closure orders by contending some of its products, including keyboards, are necessary for people working from home.

It has been up to state and local authorities to set concrete operate-as-usual limits. And lawyers have found loopholes and companies have lobbied, fighting to keep at least some revenue coming in while much of the U.S. economy has ground to a halt.

There is wide variety in how aggressively the rules are issued and applied. Law-enforcement authorities are overwhelmed, grappling with new pandemic-response roles and increasingly short-staffed as officers fall ill. And businesses often don't know which way to turn.


"We are trying to do what's right based on a situation that nobody has been in before," Zach Toth and Chris Brown said in an email. They own Benny's, which has pizza restaurants in Pennsylvania and four other states.

Some businesses simply have declared themselves essential on their own say-so. Their workers are both grateful to have jobs and worried about being exposed to the deadly virus and then passing it on to family members at home. There are no easy answers.

"It is a constant balancing act between protecting their employees and keeping their business running so their employees -- and the owners -- have jobs," said Kabrina Chang, a clinical associate professor of business law and ethics at Boston University. "We just have to keep trying our best to do the right thing, which gets harder and harder the more precarious and desperate people and businesses feel."



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