Republicans are forcing Americans to return to dangerous workplaces During a 2019 speech about economic rights, Bernie Sanders said: “Freedom is an often-used word, but it’s time we took a hard look at what that word actually means. Ask yourself: what does it actually mean to be free?” Related: Trump consults Bush torture lawyer on how to skirt law and rule by decree That question is particularly pressing today, as the push to reopen the economy is cast as a liberation movement. In their telling, conservative activists say employers must be given the freedom to ignore scientific warnings and resume business as usual. And yet, lifting stay-at-home orders is actually an assault on a core freedom – the freedom to protect oneself and one’s family from a lethal disease, without being bankrupted. A system that aimed to protect that freedom would provide the same “incessant Fed support” to workers as it is already providing to Wall Street banks. But America has constructed policies that actively try to deprive workers of that freedom and instead force them out into a deadly pandemic, under threat of being economically destroyed. In locales across the country, millions of Americans are losing employer-based healthcare coverage, and can only get it back if they go back to their jobs as infection rates increase. In various states, officials are ending eviction moratoriums because “people generally should be back at work,” as Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, put it in a declaration saying the quiet part aloud. In Washington, Donald Trump is trying to brush aside dire warnings and force open schools. Republican governors like Missouri’s Mike Parson are supporting him by declaring that if kids “do get Covid-19, which they will, and they will when they go to school, they’re not going to the hospitals. They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it” – a formula for spreading the virus from children to entire families. In Congress, Republican lawmakers are threatening to slash existing unemployment benefits. They are also aiming to shield employers from the threat of lawsuits if and when their profit-maximizing business practices end up making workers sick – a move that “would make it nearly impossible to sue corporations for Covid-19-related legal claims by workers [and] give employers a free pass to flout worker safety laws”, as two Congressional Progressive Caucus staffers recently wrote. Meanwhile, there have been reports of businesses firing workers who raise concerns over Covid – and a court rebuffed a lawsuit aiming to force the Trump labor department to issue new rules requiring employers to protect workers from the disease. This isn’t happenstance or random. It is all part of a plan. As the Roosevelt Institute’s Bharat Ramamurti put it: “Slashing unemployment insurance benefits, immunizing companies from worker health lawsuits, and forcing schools to open with inadequate funding is a ghoulish combination of policy priorities – all intended to offer up cheap, scared, and powerless labor to the forces of capital.” Unemployment systems are now set up to deny benefits You can try to write that warning off as hyperbole or conspiracy theory, but the structure of the underlying unemployment system exposes the real motives at play. Recall that for decades, conservatives have demonized the jobless as lazy layabouts unduly collecting government benefits. The result of that propaganda is an unemployment safety net that provides only meager benefits that are often delayed, which makes being out of work even more excruciating. If that wasn’t bad enough, workers can be harshly sanctioned for trying to collect benefits if they dare turn down any job, no matter how poorly paid or dangerous – and in many cases, “unemployment systems are now set up to deny benefits at every opportunity,” says Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Institute. You can see this trend in a key stat: in the last decade, the rate of erroneous unemployment benefit denials has nearly doubled. You can also see it in the emblematic scandal that recently unfolded in Michigan. There, the system was so tilted against workers that the state’s automated computer system “falsely accused more than 40,000 people of fraudulently claiming unemployment benefits” with many suffering “huge losses as the state garnished wages and tax returns as repayment for the alleged fraud”, according to Michigan Public Radio. Those losses were particularly large because right after they took control of the state government in 2011, Michigan Republicans helped corporate interests pass one of the nation’s toughest unemployment fraud laws. Under that statute, workers accused of collecting unemployment benefits while refusing a job offer can be forced to pay back four times the benefit they received plus 12% interest. In normal times, these punitive measures are harsh. In a pandemic, they represent something even more inhumane – an assault on Americans’ right to avoid dying preventable covid deaths. In practice, when governors reopen their state’s economies in the name of “freedom”, they are closing their state unemployment systems to the workers who are called back to coronavirus-riddled workplaces. And states have been cracking down at the urging of the Trump administration. “To support states in identifying claimants that have turned down suitable work, states are strongly encouraged to request employers to provide information when workers refuse to return to their jobs for reasons that do not support their continued eligibility for benefits,” said a May advisory from the labor department. Republicans justify all this – and their attempts to scale back jobless benefits – by saying they do not want the unemployment system to financially reward people for refusing to work. Unemployment benefits should be deliberately tailored to empower workers to stay home, not swarm workplaces en masse “If you pay someone $23 an hour not to work, they’re going to take you up on it,” said the Republican senator Lindsey Graham. “You shouldn’t be paid more in unemployment than you do at work.” Graham’s entire line of argument is an indictment not of Americans’ work ethic, but of employers’ outrageously low wages. Worse, his entire premise is a lie – unemployment laws prevent workers from collecting jobless benefits if they turn down a job because of bad pay. And during a pandemic, those kind of restrictions are actually terrible policy: unemployment benefits during a public health crisis should be deliberately tailored to empower workers to stay home rather than swarm workplaces en masse, which might end up exacerbating the spread of the pandemic that is already annihilating our economy. Workers are presumed guilty It doesn’t have to be this way. As recounted in a letter to the Department of Labor from the National Employment Law Project (Nelp), the government could enforce existing laws that say workers can still receive unemployment benefits when they refuse to return to workplaces that are not “suitable” for safe work. In other words: instead of automatically cutting off workers from unemployment benefits, federal and state officials could operate with the presumption that workers who don’t return to work are making that decision for safety reasons, and therefore their benefits must be preserved. Nelp has put forward model state legislation to affirmatively make workers eligible for unemployment if they leave jobs that are unsafe. The Center for Progressive Reform has a proposal to “give employees who collectively leave workplaces where they face a significant risk of contracting Covid-19 the benefit of the doubt in exercising their rights under the National Labor Relations Act to refuse dangerous work”. And 22 Senate Democrats have sent a letter to the labor department demanding that the agency issue a guidance that makes “clear that individuals cannot be forced to choose between keeping their income and putting their lives in danger”. Related: Tens of thousands of Americans strike in protest over racial inequality Until those changes to the unemployment system are implemented, though, the system will remain rigged to presume a worker refusing to go back to work is guilty of fraud and ineligible for benefits. That bias is illustrated by the labor department’s declaration that “a request that a furloughed employee return to his or her job very likely constitutes an offer of suitable employment that the employee must accept.” The presumption is that – all evidence to the contrary – workplaces are inherently safe during the pandemic, and therefore refusing to go back to work inherently constitutes fraud. All of this amplifies that question Sanders originally posed: “What does it actually mean to be free?” Conservatives have offered an answer – they employ the argot liberty to justify the current regime of coercion. But that is the kind of up-is-down logic that echoes the rhetoric George Orwell satirized in Animal Farm. Sure – going back to work is not slavery. But being forced into an unsafe workplace during a deadly pandemic is also not exactly freedom, either. David Sirota is a Guardian US columnist and an award-winning investigative journalist. He is an editor at large at Jacobin, and the publisher of the newsletter Too Much Information. He served as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign speechwriter