The coronavirus is more than an issue of physical health. It encompasses so much that touches our lives, especially as workers and consumers. WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins asked Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to answer questions about matters of rights, responsibilities and accommodation.
Lisa Mullins: Before we get to specific questions about what we're encountering out there as a result of the outbreak, what are the most pressing issues that you're facing now?
Today, I'll be announcing an emergency regulation on price gouging because we've seen price gouging of not just hand sanitizers and those things, but also of medical supplies and even temporary workers. The rates for temporary workers, for lab technicians, nurses and the like.
Can you explain that about the temporary workers? What's the gouging there?
Well, unfortunately, because people have contracted coronavirus, it's come into our hospitals and we've seen some of our our health care providers infected. And when that happens, they have to go home. And so that creates a real need from an employment perspective. And we've seen and received calls, including from hospitals, that they all of a sudden are facing really severe hikes in prices.
Prices for temporary help? Can you give us an example?
Yes. We've seen prices really go up there — upwards of rates of $180.00 an hour, for example, for a lab technician — more than a 100%, 200% increase ... We've certainly seen some of the consumer goods [increase]. And people need access to to certain goods and services, and we need to make sure we protect that.
I just want to ask you about merchandisers. If there is something like hand sanitizer — 12 ounces that somebody is now, because of supply and demand, trying to get $19.99 for. Is a merchandiser allowed to charge more for in-demand goods?
Well, you know, always there's the law of supply and demand. However, there is a point of reasonableness ... when there's a point at which something becomes exploitative of the situation, and that's what we want to avoid.
Let me ask you something about employment and safety. I heard a cashier at a grocery store this morning say, "This is the first time in my life I've been an essential employee. And here I am on the front lines." And this, as he's ringing in one of many customers. He was really happy. I think he was kind of chuffed. But are employees who do come to work entitled to anything more than those who are told to stay at home?
Well, it's going to depend employer by employer, but people working in grocery stores right now are essential. And part of what the public needs to do is to keep them healthy. Both their employer needs to work to do that, but the public's got to help and step up. We are all in this together.
Well, if that person was going to [stay] really healthy, he probably wouldn't be there in the first place. So is he entitled to anything?
Well, people have to work. I understand that. But people are entitled to sick leave. And more than anything, if you are sick, you should not work. Do not go to work. The governor has waived the time period for collection of unemployment benefits. We're going to see a lot of people who are filing. But if you're sick, don't go to work.
And if someone is told not to come to work and is told by their employer to use their sick time instead of getting paid, is that legal?
No. You only use sick time if you're sick. But if you're sent home, you're entitled to be paid for all of the hours that you were there before you were sent home. But at that point, if you're asked to stay home, you can apply for unemployment insurance benefits. I just encourage employers and employees to work together during this time. It's going to be a hurt for everyone out there.
Let's say on a consumer issue, I pre-paid for my child to attend camp over spring vacation and now camp is canceled. Can I get my money back?
Well, we're encouraging consumers to work directly with businesses on refunds and for businesses to try to do as much as they can. I will tell you, that's one of the things that we're getting a lot of complaints about — canceled school trips and the like. And we are working directly with some of those companies to try to get as much back in terms of refunds for consumers as possible.
But isn't the law the law? I mean, if you look at a contract that you might have had with your with your fitness club, for instance, [coronavirus] wouldn't have been written into that.
Oh, absolutely ... gym memberships. That's a great example. Pre-paid gym memberships. Our consumer protection law says that if your gym closes, you can cancel and get a refund for pre-paid memberships. If you have trouble with that, file a complaint with our office.
When somebody calls your office, is there a real person on the other end, the hotline that you have?
There is a real person on the other end of that line, and we'll take your calls. You can certainly continue to file complaints online. And [it's] also important to helping us keep an eye on what's happening out there so that we know what we need to take action on, as well.
Why don't you give the hotline number, and ... tell us how long the turnaround time is between when somebody makes a call and somebody gets the answer to their question.
We'll try to get you an answer as quickly as possible, but I have people who are providing answers on the spot and taking in information on the spot when you make those calls. We're open at 8:00 [a.m.]. Our Fair Labor Hotline is 617-727-3465. So feel free to call that hotline if you have any questions. Lines are busy. If you if you leave a message, we will get right back to you. I've got that information up on our website, as well, for employment issues, for consumer issues. Let us be a resource to you and to your families.
Resources: Massachusetts Attorney General's Office COVID-19 Consumer Protection
Massachusetts Attorney General's Office COVID-19 Fair Labor Practices
This segment aired on March 19, 2020.