BROOKLYN, NEW YORK — Workers at a Clinton Hill wine shop grew increasingly anxious as they saw throngs of customers crowd their tiny store amid the new coronavirus pandemic. On Sunday, they asked their boss to strengthen safety measures in the store.
On Monday they were fired.
Four workers at Tipsy in Clinton Hill handed over their keys last week after raising concerns about poor social distancing practices within the Myrtle Avenue shop, said former employee Therese Whelan.
“None of us wanted to lose our jobs, we just wanted safety measures in place,” Whelan told Patch. “It just seemed way too much of a risk just to sell wine.”
To keep up to date with coronavirus developments in NYC, sign up for Patch's news alerts and newsletter.
In an email dated March 23, and viewed by Patch, owner Amanda Neville told workers, "If you refuse to report for work because of generalized fear or concern for catching the virus, I will have no choice but to terminate your employment."
"Our business is an 'essential' business, which means that we may remain open," Neville added. "That also means as my employees you are required to report for work unless you are symptomatic, diagnosed or under quarantine."
Business boomed at Tipsy after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his statewide “pause” ruling on March 20, which ordered non-essential workers to remain in their homes but allowed essential workers — such as the people who man supermarkets, pharmacies and liquor stores — to keep going to work, Whelan said.
Tipsy staff were asked to take cash and credit cards from about 200 customers a day who crammed into the shop and stood within inches of one another and the workers, Whelan said.
“The store was insanely busy,” said Whelan. “It’s really hard to ring someone up at a six foot distance, you just can’t do it."
Tipsy owner Amanda Neville did not provide staff with masks and gloves — which have become increasingly difficult to procure — and the bottle of hand sanitizer that stood on the checkout counter had been brought in by a worker, Whelan said.
So the group asked Neville to consider transitioning to only takeout and delivery, increasing the number of staff per shift to limit close interactions and temporarily end cash transactions.
Neville told Patch she fired the staff because she couldn't shut down in-house sales without threatening her business and so that her team would be eligible to collect unemployment.
Workers fired for cause are usually not allowed to file for unemployment but the COVID-19 outbreak has spurred New York State to relax some Department of Labor regulations, such as the 7-day application waiting period.
"This was a difficult decision to make and was weighed heavily," Neville said in an email. "I miss my team and I am devastated by this situation."
Economic experts say coronavirus response measures have restaurant, bar and shop owners such as Neville under a strain that could prove fatal for small businesses.
The greater economic ramifications could be worse than those of 9/11 with an estimated 500,000 jobs and $1 billion in monthly wages lost, said James Parrott, director of economic and fiscal policies at The New School's Center for New York City Affairs.
"I don't think we've ever seen anything like that," Parrott said. "The coronavirus crisis triggered the onset of a national recession whose trajectory is unknowable at this point."
But health experts warn COVID-19 could cost thousands of essential workers their lives.
A Brookings Institute analysis estimates that between 125,000 and 250,000 essential workers will die if the COVID-19 models that put nationwide fatalities between 1.1 and 2.2 million people are accurate.
“Those who must report to a work site do all this knowing they cannot social distance, putting their own lives at risk in the process,” the analysis reads.
“The country should consider COVID-19-related essential workers akin to active duty military personnel.”
Contact PatchNYC@patch.com to reach a Patch reporter and share your coronavirus story. All messages are confidential.
The four full-time Tipsy staff members made several attempts to negotiate with Neville in the week before they lost their jobs, reaching out to the national worker advocacy organization Democratic Socialists of America for help.
DSA organizer Zelig Stern said hundreds of New York City's essential workers have reported the absence of social distancing practices, protective gear and paid sick leave to the group’s online COVID-19 worker hotline.
“This is obviously a pretty dangerous time for workers, especially for essential workers,” Stern said. “I’m sad to say this, but people take risks all the time to work in this country.”
Stern advised the group they had three choices: they could continue to work, they could not show up to work and lose their jobs, or they could protest the conditions.
The Tipsy staff would not have been the first to protest conditions.
But Stern noted workers in large organizations often have more power to negotiate with employers simply because there are more of them.
“It’s very unlikely for a small group of workers to have the power,” Stern said. “It’s much easier when you have a lot of people.”
So when Neville told Whelan and her colleagues they could accept conditions as is or not come to work, they chose not come, and lost their jobs for it, the former Tipsy employee said.
“It is kinda crazy,” Whelan said. “You cannot be fired for asking for safety precautions but you can be fired for not showing up.”
This may not be strictly true.
Refusing to come to work over fears of contracting COVID-19 might be protected under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which states an employee can refuse if he, she or they believe they face imminent danger.
But, as Stern notes, OSH cases can take years and the reward can be small.
“I can tell you from decade of experience, employers will fire you despite the law,” Stern said.
Whelan said the group ultimately decided not to go to work because one staff member had autoimmune disorder and several others went home to high-risk family members.
But Whelan remains concerned that Neville was not the first and won't be the last employer to deliver such an ultimatum to essential workers.
“There should be accountability for businesses like this," Whelan said. “We’re all kind of overwhelmed and shocked."