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With businesses at least partially or fully opening in Nebraska following closures from COVID-19, worker and customer safety are now at the forefront of concerns.

The Legislature's Business and Labor Committee held a virtual briefing last week on how businesses were navigating the effects of the virus. The briefing was initially closed to the media and public, but recorded and later posted online.

Kristen Hassebrook of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce told the committee many businesses are adapting their hygiene, employee training and workplace responses to the coronavirus. 

"Doing the right thing, as well as concerns over liability, are their top concerns right now in terms of the workplace," Hassebrook said. "Employers obviously also have an incentive to keep their workplaces as safe as possible for employees and customers." 

But the future of workplaces and remote capability is going to remain a challenge for many Nebraska businesses, she said. 

Worker safety remains one of the bigger concerns of the virus, especially in the meat and poultry production plants, said Micky Devitt of Heartland Workers Center. The food processing plants are a good example of what's been going on more broadly, she said, and a way to find what could improve safety for other businesses as they open up.  

There's a lack of clear guidance on what businesses must be doing to protect workers, Devitt said. Uniform safety directives are needed that emphasize higher levels of controls to increase safety and enforcement. 

At the top of safety measures are contact tracing, transparency with employees on infection and testing access, she said. 

"It's common knowledge now that contact tracing is really critical in controlling spread," Devitt said. "But in workplaces we're seeing temperature checks as the preferred method for screening out illness, despite evidence that individuals are contagious before they are symptomatic." 

The state's contact-tracing system appears to be ending at employers' front doors, she said, and employers are not required to report new cases to regulators. 

Her center has seen somewhat disastrous results from employees not knowing what's going on in their workplaces, she said. 

"We really think that if employers could be held to the obligation to inform their employees when there's illness in the plant, individual shifts or in a work area — if they're cohorting employees that makes it even easier — (they) will be able to stop the spread that goes out into the communities and the families and everywhere else," Devitt said.  

Guidelines on keeping employees safe, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the University of Nebraska Medical Center are all different and none enforceable, Devitt said. And the voluntary safety measures employers are resorting to tend to be the least effective. 

There are a range of possible controls, she said, including the most effective of contact tracing and getting people quarantined and out of the workplace. Also effective is proper ventilation and air filtration, work stations spaced 6 feet apart and physical barriers. Others are cohorting workers together, sanitizing controls and looking at sick-leave policies. 

The least effective control, which some employers have an overreliance on, is personal protective equipment. Masks tend to be relied on more heavily because they are the cheapest, Devitt said. Personal face masks should be used when there aren't other options, she said, but they are not a substitution for other controls and the safer N95 medical-grade masks.

Without staggered shifts, proper ventilation, increased sanitation and distancing, and paid sick time off, people can be spreading the infection in the workplace, especially in crowded spaces, she said. 

Paid sick leave, which low-end workers are least likely to have, is important, she said. Without it, they are seeing workers go in every day even if they are exposed or sick. And in some cases, employers are encouraging workers to come in, even if exposed or as long as they have fewer than two symptoms.

Hassebrook told the committee a mid-April survey of 7,500 businesses in Nebraska showed 87% were negatively affected by COVID-19. The hardest hit were arts and entertainment, health care and social assistance, education, and accommodation and food services. 

Concerns revolved around financial impacts, how long quarantine efforts would last, decreasing consumer confidence and spending, and workforce safety. Sixteen percent of those surveyed, or 1,298, said a top concern was going out of business. 

A large number of businesses were able to get federal assistance, Hassebrook said. Access to the Paycheck Protection Program has provided some cash flow, she said, but there is concern about reaching a cliff as some of the funds stopped flowing and consumer spending continues to lag.

A quicker recovery is expected in the last two quarters of 2020, with a bounce-back in 2021 and 2022.

The Nebraska chamber is tracking two areas of caution that could hinder economic recovery. Those are how much confidence employees and consumers have in the safety of the businesses and how much consumers will continue to spend. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

This article originally ran on journalstar.com.

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