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Answering viewer questions about workplace safety during the pandemic

As states and businesses around the country begin to reopen, many Americans are worried about the health risks of returning to work. Christina Banks, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at the University of California, Berkeley, joins Amna Nawaz to respond to viewer questions and concerns about workplace safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we take your questions on the pandemic to experts to help make sense of these tough times.

    We get your questions from our Web site, from Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

    For the record, Facebook is a funder of the "NewsHour."

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

    And thanks to all of you for sending us your questions.

    Now, as you know, some businesses around the country are opening back up, leaving many of you concerned about the risks of going back to work.

    To answer your questions about workplace safety during the pandemic, we're joined by Cristina Banks. She's the director of the Interdisciplinary Center For Healthy Workplaces at the University of California, Berkeley.

    Cristina Banks, welcome to the "NewsHour," and thanks for being with us.

  • Cristina Banks:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let's jump right into the questions now.

    The very first one comes from Salli Szczesiul. She's from Connecticut. She reached out on Facebook, and she sent us this video.

  • Salli Szczesiul:

    I'm concerned I may contract the virus from one of my co-workers or vise versa. We have been wearing masks and gloves and distancing six feet since March 15. But life's not perfect.

    Do I need to be worried?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Cristina, Salli says, she's got masks, gloves. They're distancing. What else can she be asking her employer for?

  • Cristina Banks:

    Well, one of the things that she didn't mention was cleaning.

    And the reason why this is important is because the risk and the danger is invisible. And what I would recommend is that Salli and anyone else in this condition talk to the employer about, what is the protocol? Are they following HHS and CDC guidelines, so that their safety can be assured in the workplace?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Open line of communication is a good idea, making sure the guidelines are all clear.

    Let's get to another question now. This one comes from Greg Sink from Ohio. He submitted his question on Facebook.

    And Greg writes the following — quote — "My concern is the government and employers will use antibody test results in hiring and firing decisions. If you're not immune, you lose your job."

    Cristina, what about this issue? Could we see discrimination based on lab results or your health or immunity in the workplace?

  • Cristina Banks:

    It's a really good question, and I'm really glad that Greg brought up that question.

    And it's because we have to understand right off the bat that antibody tests are not perfect, and that they can result in false positives and false negatives. So, we really have to worry about it having a discriminatory effect.

    The best way to use antibody body tests in the future, I believe, is to gauge the risk that an individual has by returning to the workplace. A negative means greater risk, more protection. So I think that would be a proper way of using these tests.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Very useful information.

    Let's jump down to another question. This is from Rosie Singalewitch. She's a schoolteacher from New Jersey. She submitted a question via Facebook.

    Here's Rosie now.

  • Rosie Singalewitch:

    I'd like to know how we can send teachers back into the classroom, when, because of health or age, they might be the most at risk for infection in a building where there might be as many as 1,300 students.

    How do we protect everyone? I'm a teacher. I'm at risk. And I am not the only one with these concerns.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Cristina, what can you say to Rosie?

    We know schools across the country remain closed, but what can you say to teachers like her who are worried out there?

  • Cristina Banks:

    Well, she should be worried, because even though we would love our children to go back to school and teachers back to the classroom, there's no such thing as social distancing in those environments.

    And then you also consider kids, the children at school. They like to affiliate. They like to touch. They like to touch their teachers. And so even the prohibitions of, you know, not touching, social distancing, wearing masks, all of those things, it's just not practical.

    So I can imagine — though it's hard to say this, but I imagine that the only way to keep teachers and students safe is to wait for the vaccine.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is — that's very sobering right there. Good information for teachers and for parents of kids and school out there.

    Let's just take one last question now, Cristina. This one's from Nicole Stanteen. She's from Texas. She submitted her question on Twitter.

    And here's the thing to know about Nicole. Her wife is the sole earner in the family. Nicole is worried about her wife returning to work.

    Here's Nicole now.

  • Nicole Stanteen:

    She has a neurodegenerative disease and is immunocompromised.

    My mom lives with us and is receiving treatments for terminal lung cancer. So, my wife may have to decide if she wants to risk two lives and go into the office, or refuse and risk four lives, my wife, me, mom, and our adult son.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Cristina, Nicole has a lot of concerns there. But what can you say to someone like her right now?

  • Cristina Banks:

    Well, I think it comes down to whether she wants to work or whether she wants to not work.

    If she chooses not to work and protect her family, that means she's looking for economic support. And there is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would provide some economic support.

    If she does want to work ,then we should talk about alternative work arrangements. So the alternative work arrangements is working from home and working at some remote location, not at the work site. But the important thing is that, whatever location that is, that it has to be a single-person use, and that there is a possibility for social distancing.

    So these are just some alternatives that might be considered, but it's a tough situation to be in.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It is a tough situation, indeed. A lot of people out there weighing some of those tough factors.

    Cristina Banks of the University of California, Berkeley, thanks for being with us and taking these questions today.

  • Cristina Banks:

    Thank you so much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And thanks to all of you for your questions.

    You can send us more via "NewsHour"'s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, or on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such important questions. We are so glad we're able to tackle those.

    Thank you, Amna.

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