In an NPR piece that’s being absolutely slammed by Twitter users, readers are introduced to a coffee shop owner in eastern Kentucky who laments her business closing amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. "We basically have this situation where it would be a logical choice for a lot of people to be unemployed," Sky Marietta, whose shop closed about a week ago, explained in an interview with the publication. Whether intentional or not, Marietta’s comment on the pandemic relief unemployment benefit, which offers up to an additional $600 per week, sounds close to concerns espoused by certain Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Marietta stressed to the outlet that the shop is committed to paying employees a “living wage.” She added: "It happens that a living wage in Harlan, Kentucky, is not exactly the same thing as it is in other parts of the country."
Speaking to Politico, Adam Rammel, co-owner of a bar and restaurant in Ohio, expressed a similar concern, stating: “Heck, if they’re making more money sitting at home […] I’m fearful that some may not want to come back.”
As NPR reports, Marietta directed her employees to wash their hands every time they used the cash register, disinfect door handles, and transitioned to curbside pick-up in place of actually letting customers enter the establishment. That’s all great. A sticky point that isn’t explicitly stated in the article: Were these “former employees” fired, laid off, or quit? The article doesn’t specify the terms under which they became “former.”
On wages, Marrieta says it is “literally [...] the best possible pay of their lives they could possibly get, to be unemployed." She reportedly expressed concern about what said former employees, who she described as “lovely” and “hardworking,” would do if the federal benefit ends late this summer.
What’s missing from this piece? Interviews with any employees, former or otherwise. While NPR reports that workers made between $10 and $15 an hour at the shop, there are no details about shifts, schedules, paid time off, tipped wages, paid family leave, and related issues covered. Without comments from workers, it’s impossible to know what their rationale or circumstances are.
There are a lot of missing pieces, including a curiosity: Is the demand so high that Marietta can’t run the shop herself? She mentions wanting to stay open to support healthcare workers who are probably desperate for a cup of coffee; in itself, this is certainly a kind and reasonable sentiment. What’s the average flow of customers? Again, it’s not clarified in the NPR coverage, though the publication reports she “had customers.” In a March 23 article on WYMT, Sky described a grim morning, stating: “You know today we've had one sale. Versus, you know, another Monday we probably would have about 20 by this time.”
Social media users have ideas on the possible connective issues, however. Mostly, people on Twitter are surprised, confused, and outraged at the narrative.
As we know, however, protests to “reopen” Kentucky have already begun. Last week, a small group of protesters appeared at the state capitol to push Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to “open up Kentucky.” As of now, Beshear has used a “healthy-at-home” executive order to close nonessential businesses. Restaurants, cafes, and bars are allowed to stay open for take-out and deliveries. Residents can still go outside for exercise and errands, including grocery runs.
All of this bears resemblance to arguments uttered by Sen. Graham. As Daily Kos previously covered, Graham objected to provisions in the Senate coronavirus bill on unemployment. Why? Among other things, he voiced concern that upon learning they were “going to make $24 an hour on unemployment” nurses would feel the incentive to quit, basically “taking people out of the workforce.”
According to Graham, nurses—people who are literally on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic—would basically be swayed into taking a paid vacation if unemployment benefits kicked in to help people survive in a tanking economy and ongoing public health crisis.
Of course, after that additional $600 per week was included in the stimulus package, many Republicans did boast about it. Senators ranging from Arizona’s Martha McSally to Montana’s Steve Daines bragged about the expansion. Imagine if GOP senators didn’t fight this sort of worker protection tooth and nail along the way.