May 1, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Some states are telling workers that if their employers reopen and they do not go back to work, they could lose unemployment benefits.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said, “If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit.” Reynolds urged employers to contact the state’s Workforce Development office, which would cut off the workers’ unemployment checks

That is particularly newsworthy in Iowa, where workers at meat processing plants lost their jobs while the factories try to clean up their workplaces, which have suffered COVID-19 outbreaks.

The Texas Tribune reported:

One of the qualifications for unemployment benefits (in Texas) is that workers must be “willing and able to work all the days and hours required for the type of work you are seeking,” according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

Those who choose not to return become ineligible for unemployment benefits, said Cisco Gamez, a Texas Workforce Commission spokesman. If workers have concerns about whether their employer is following health guidelines, Gamez said they should contact the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Texas Workforce Commission said it is trying to come up with “parameters” that could allow Texans to qualify for unemployment insurance even if their employers have reopened. The parameters could look at, for example, if the employee has health vulnerabilities or lives with someone who does.

And the Texas Tribune quoted the Texas American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations as saying that high-risk workers should not be forced to return to work if they believe their workplaces are still unsafe.

NPR said workers may find their state unemployment laws to be different from the Department of Labor’s standards and, remember, lots of workers are getting both state unemployment insurance payments and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance from the feds. NPR reported:

Unlike many other states that require individuals to file claims for themselves, Georgia implemented a system that allows business owners to file on behalf of employees to facilitate the enrollment process. That means they are the ones who are reporting directly to the Department of Labor. So, if a person can find a workaround with their employer, then they may be able to continue to receive benefits, Cartwright said.

That differs from what the U.S. Department of Labor says on its website, which outlines specific conditions a person has to meet to refuse to return to work. The list includes a COVID-19 diagnosis, restrictions due to childcare availability, caring for an ill family member or health “complications that render the individual objectively unable to perform his or her essential job functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation” as a result of having recovered from COVID-19.

“However, voluntarily deciding to quit your job out of a general concern about exposure to COVID-19 does not make you eligible for [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance],” according to the site.

The National Employment Law Project said a worker who feels unsafe going back to work but is being forced to in order to keep from losing unemployment benefits could file a “quit claim,” which starts an official process. But it is not easy to win such a claim.

Workers also have options to file complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (both federal and state). A worker would have to document the lack of safety and show how the employer has failed to fix the problem.

Here are some resources to help with documentation.

The return of the office cubicle — open offices were not that great anyway

We know now that a lot of us can work at home. Let’s face it, the main reason to go back to an office to begin with is to collaborate with coworkers. But when/if we do go back, it may be a lot different, at least for a while. Those open collaborative spaces may be separated by walls.

I saw this on Wired.com:

“You’re gonna see a lot of plexiglass,” says Michael Boonshoft, a spokesperson for Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate company that has drawn up guidelines for reopening office spaces. “Having that divider will make people feel safer. That shield between desks will be really important.”

The whole “open office” trend of the last decade is pinned to Silicon Valley work cultures. In part, it was because startups could not afford offices, so they used shared workspaces. But recent studies indicate that open workspaces reduce productivity. In fact, a Harvard Business School sponsored study showed open offices actually decrease face-to-face interactivity. And the drop is not just a little bit — it’s 70%.

In one study involving a Fortune 500 company, workers wore sensors to tell researchers if they were actually interacting with coworkers. They measured all sorts of people, from bosses to sales, finance and product development.

The researchers found (edited for clarity):

Although the company’s primary purpose in opening up the space had been to increase worker interactions, the 52 participants now spent 72% less time interacting face to face. Prior to the redesign, they accumulated 5,266 minutes of interaction over 15 days, or roughly 5.8 hours of face-to-face interaction per person per day.

After the redesign, those same people accumulated only 1,492 minutes of interaction over 15 days, or roughly 1.7 hours per person per day.

The study found that even though the workers could see each other, they sent 56% more emails to each other and got 67% more instant messages than they did when everyone had an office space. In short, at just the time it would be easier to interact with each other, workers chose to turn to electronic messaging instead.

There might be a logical reason, researchers said, that open spaces reduce interactions. It is harder to have a private conversation in an environment where there are a lot of people who can listen in, so private conversations might go to email or direct messages instead.

There are limits to this logic, however. At some point, proximity matters to how and how much we interact with coworkers. The Harvard Business Review noted:

“A study we conducted at the main campus of a Fortune 500 retailer with more than a dozen buildings showed that just 10% of all communications occurred between employees whose desks were more than 500 meters apart. These findings suggest that locating people in proximate buildings won’t improve collaboration; to increase interactions, workers should be in the same building, ideally on the same floor.”

While this is a column focused on story ideas for journalists and not a leadership and management column, I cannot help but think of what new challenges newsrooms will face in building a collaborative environment if we are, once again, walled off from coworkers. I find it takes so much longer and is so much less effective to share ideas with coworkers on Slack and direct messages than via face-to-face chats.

How will workers commute after the COVID-19 shutdown?

The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting piece this week about the challenge of getting to work safely. For those of us in smaller cities, it may not even cross our minds. Carpools might be less attractive, but in big cities where mass transit is the way to work, employers are thinking about all sorts of alternatives. The Journal reported that realty firms are getting calls from New York City tenants who are considering opening satellite offices in the suburbs that might be easier for commuters. The employers start by analyzing workers’ zip codes and figuring out where most of them live, then looking for office space near them.

Let’s celebrate small businesses that reinvent themselves

It would be cool for journalists to ask small business owners to tell us about the ways their businesses are reinventing themselves. It is not just car manufacturers making medical equipment or breweries producing hand sanitizer.

BuzzFeed shared examples of a custom framing company that figured out how to produce medical face shields, a prop building company that now is making stay-at-home desks, and “Local restaurants are now offering ‘essentials,’ like toilet paper, in addition to food. These side businesses have attracted some buzz online, made possible by restaurants’ connections to wholesale suppliers.”

The Harvard Business Review said that businesses “with fewer than 500 employees account for 48% of American jobs and 43.5% of GDP.”

When you share examples like these, a few things happen. Of course, the small businesses you feature get a boost but, more importantly, it may spark the creativity and imaginations that will invent new businesses and jobs when we need them most.

Will there be restaurant buffets after COVID-19?

As restaurants open back up, there is buzz going around the restaurant world that buffets will be a no-no. Buffet restaurants have been in an overall decline for a while and this might just do them in.

Restaurant Business said:

Federal recommendations on reopening restaurants note that they should discontinue self-service operations. That means those self-service drink stations at many fast-food restaurants will be gone for the time being.

The guidelines also mention buffets that use “common utensils or dispensers.”

That goes right to the basic model of the buffet concept, which is based on the idea of allowing consumers to get an endless supply of food whenever they’ve emptied their plates. Addressing federal recommendations would require a vastly different model than the one they’ve employed.

“The social distancing as it relates to buffets is a challenge,” said Roslyn Stone, chief operating officer for Zero Hour Health, which helps restaurant operators with food safety and health issues.

Radio stations are closing because of COVID-19

We have spent a lot of time tracking how many newspapers are cutting back or even going out of business during the pandemic, but radio stations, especially small-town stations, are also struggling.

Places like Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and Evergreen, Alabama, have lost stations because business dried up due to COVID-19. Spanish language stations in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, said they are off the air temporarily because of soft advertising markets. The owner of two radio stations in Monterey-Salinas-Santa Cruz, California, market donated the stations to a nonprofit after he could not find a buyer for them.

InsideRadio.com reported:

A group of 35 radio stations went dark in April, bringing the total number of stations off the air to 369, up from 334 in March. The April number is the highest amount of stations off the air during the previous 12 months. Most are AM outlets, and many are located in small markets.

Not all stations said it was the financial pressure of the economic shutdown that was their breaking point. In some cases, broadcasters have told the FCC their stations need repairs but because of the lockdown they haven’t been able to get crews onsite to perform the work.

The number of licensed radio stations that are currently silent rises and falls from month to month. During the past 12 months, the number has increased or decreased by as much as 18 and by as little as two. An increase of 35 stations in one month is highly unusual.

Nielsen, the broadcast ratings company, said radio listenership is way up during the pandemic, despite the loss of “drive time” listening as people commute to home and home.

(Courtesy: Nielsen)

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai said he would love to hear ideas about how to help radio stations stay on the air, including even allowing them to reduce signal power, which would lower their electric bills — but of course it would also reduce the stations’ coverage area.

What we are eating and making now

This is the season when public companies report quarterly earnings, which gives us a peek into how people are spending their money.

Interestingly, on Thursday, Kellogg said its packaged foods like cereal and cheese are selling very well. Kraft-Heinz said its sales are way up, too, as people stockpiled stuff for pantries and bought a lot of macaroni and cheese, condiments and sauces, ready to drink beverages, and nuts.

The Wall Street Journal said banana bread is all the rage right now. Apparently, people have aging fruit that would otherwise go to waste, so they are finding creative ways to cook/bake it into something more appealing.

CNBC said these are the top 10 most searched recipes on Google globally since March 1:

  1. Banana bread
  2. Pancakes
  3. Chicken
  4. Pizza dough
  5. Brownies
  6. “Recette crepe” (which means “crepe recipe” in French)
  7. Meatloaf
  8. French toast
  9. Lasagna
  10. Cheesecake

How we work now

My friend Brendan Keefe at WXIA-Atlanta found a way to turn his home into a studio by using “green screen” technology — also known as fabric from the fabric store clipped to curtains.

(Screenshot, Facebook)

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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