LOS ANGELES -- There's no social distancing for Venda Ripke at work. The 41-year-old teacher often gets face-to-face with the young students in her special-education classes at Newcastle Elementary School.
Students with learning disorders, autism and other conditions benefit, she says, from the close interaction. And that's a problem in the age of coronavirus, especially since Ripke has Type 1 diabetes and other medical ailments.
"I am a disabled person and I work with students who are disabled," says Ripke, who hasn't taught at the Reseda school since the Los Angeles Unified School District sent students home in March. "I feel like I can't even walk outside of my home. Imagine if I were being asked to return to work."
With some 39 million Americans filing jobless claims since the pandemic broke out and fears growing of another Great Depression, getting workplaces open has become a priority. That's a tricky proposition as the number of coronavirus cases and deaths mount, even if the rate of transmission slows in some places. But for workers especially vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, a return to work can feel like a death sentence. That's not a small group.
Some 41 million Americans ages 18 to 64 are at risk for serious complications from COVID-19 due to underlying conditions such as diabetes, uncontrolled asthma and heart disease, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. Also at risk are Americans 65 and older, about 10.4 million of whom remain in the workforce -- an age group that accounts for 80% of U.S. COVID deaths.
Already there's evidence vulnerable communities are paying a price, with African Americans, Latinos and other minorities dying at higher rates than their white and Asian counterparts, according to a Times analysis. Several factors account for the disparity, among them the fact such groups are more likely to work consumer-facing jobs and have underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
"COVID has really brought to the forefront a sense of vulnerability that is much bigger than we thought," said Eileen McNeely, executive director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's SHINE program, which researches how to develop sustainable and healthful workplaces. "We've all now started to pay attention to who's dying at greater rates."
While federal law provides special protections for workers who have disabilities or are older, ultimately they can be recalled to the workplace, even if it can't be made 100% safe. And should employers try to prevent certain employees from returning to their jobs, they could face discrimination claims from older workers and disabled workers.
The complications of returning millions to the workplace has prompted a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is seeking broad liability protections for employers in case workers or customers get sick, while the AFL-CIO filed a lawsuit Monday demanding the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue tough emergency standards to better protect workers.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a temporary executive order creating a presumption that if a worker gets sick it was contracted on the job, funneling such cases into the workers compensation system.