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As Pandemic Stretches On, Revealing Possible Exposure Can Be Costly To Workers

Marcie was at work at a Ford plant when she got a text warning her she might have been exposed to the coronavirus. It wasn't a sure thing — she was a few steps removed from the confirmed positive case. But it was worrying.

"So am I supposed to leave work? Technically I could be positive and not know it," said Marcie, who didn't want her last name used because she's worried about retribution for talking about the plant. "But, you know, a lot of people just can't do that. Can't just get up and go. We depend on the forty hours."

Marcie is not alone in wondering about how to handle possible exposure to the virus.

It's one of the key conundrums for U.S. workers as sectors such as the auto industry ramp up production after the pandemic lockdowns.

Employees who can't work remotely have to consider not just the risk that they'll catch the virus at work, but the possibility that they'll be exposed to it in their communities and unwittingly spread it to their colleagues.

Fully disclosing potential exposures raises another major risk — that they may be sent home without pay.

Marcie says Ford's rules on masks and social distancing are followed pretty well, so she generally feels safe at work.

But, like so many other parents, she had to find a solution for child care during this pandemic. She wound up making a deal with another mom to swap child care duties. It meant she could keep working — but it also created more ways she might be exposed to the virus.

And sure enough, it was because of that expanded bubble that Marcie found herself at work, staring at a text from the other mother suggesting her to go get tested because of a potential indirect exposure.

Adding to her dilemma, she says, was uncertainty about what would happen if she reported the risk or even tested positive. She said Ford's policies on quarantines are "a big mystery."

Unionized auto workers have more job protections than many American workers, but even at union plants, policies on paid quarantines vary.

Fiat Chrysler says they pay workers referred for testing by the automakers' medical department and "also may pay" certain other employees asked to stay home. Ford says they pay employees who were exposed to the virus, but "the duration depends on the circumstances," while GM says "each person's case is different."

Workers and local union officials say the policies are often unclear or inconsistent, both in terms of who gets sent home to quarantine, and whether, or how much, they're paid while they're not working.

One worker at a GM plant in Michigan, who wanted to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, told NPR she was sent home after describing a possible exposure that happened outside work. She waited nearly a week for her negative test result, without pay.

She said she's worried these unpaid quarantines create an incentive for workers not to disclose their possible exposure, if they know they might end up losing pay as a result.

A GM spokesman said one factor the company considers when deciding whether to pay quarantined workers is if their exposure happened at work.

Meagan Garland is a labor and employment attorney at Duane Morris who advises employers. She says exposure at work is a special case because it could be a worker's compensation issue. But in some other situations, she'd advise against paying an employee to stay home.

"[Employers] want to be very careful to not do something for one employee that they cannot then do for the entire workforce if it came to it," she said, noting that a lot of businesses are struggling right now and can't afford to pay for all the employees who could eventually need to quarantine.

She also said companies don't want to create an incentive for people to exaggerate their risks in order to get paid to stay home.

Still, she said, if companies can afford to pay for all quarantines, they should.

"Absolutely," she said. "This is the time to show [employees] how much you care, and ... that you're willing to put your money where your where your mouth is."

Garland notes that like so many things about the virus, these unpaid quarantines reveal a huge divide. For people who can work from home, quarantining while waiting for a test result is almost a non-issue.

But if going to work means showing up at a plant, quarantines factor in to an anxious calculation — balancing the risk of spreading the disease against the risk of losing a paycheck.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.