Mothers with high-risk children afraid to return to restaurant jobs


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Thousands of employees are now being called back to work as cities across KELOLAND reopen.

Those workers must return, or risk losing their unemployment benefits. That’s not sitting well with some mothers of children with underlying health issues. Two women who say they feel they are being forced to chose between risking their children’s lives and their livelihoods.

The town of Sturgis has seen business pick up in recent days. Stephanie Davis is a server at Uncle Louie’s Diner.

“They want to be open seven days a week and they need the extra help and myself and one other employee are the only two not back to work, and they asked if I was comfortable coming back and where I sat with them. And if I was still uncomfortable coming back to work, they would have to replace me,” Davis said.

Stephanie is one of two workers on furlough because she has an autoimmune disease. But her 15-year-old daughter Leigha is the one she’s really worried about. Leigha has been hospitalized numerous times because she has autoimmune hepatitis, which can lead to liver failure.

Kennecke: What is your biggest fear in all of this pandemic?
Stephanie Davis: That I’ll be the one to make her sick, because I know she can’t even handle an ear infection so if she were to get the coronavirus and it was my fault because I worked in the service industry—my daughter wouldn’t make it.

15-year-old Leigha Degen in the hospital with her mother, Stephanie Davis, by her side

Amanda Smith, a server at Ruby Tuesday’s in Sioux Falls, is in a similar situation. Her 16-month-old daughter Kelsey has been hospitalized with respiratory illnesses and has been diagnosed with asthma.

“I know my immune system can handle it, but if I was to bring something back to her, I would be concerned at how well she is going to be able to fight it off,” Smith said.

Amanda Smith with her daughter Kelsey during a hospital stay for RSV

But both women will lose their unemployment benefits if they don’t go back to their jobs when asked by their employers.
Stephanie says when that happens she also risks losing her home.

“I feel like I’m backed in a corner. I can do this or I can do this. And either way, either you’re juggling a life or you’re juggling your livelihood. Like which one do you choose?

Then Leigha joined in on the conversation. Leigha is old enough to understand what’s happening.

Leigha Degen: I’ve been hospitalized just for an ear infection. So I get sick, super super easily. So if I got COVID, I probably wouldn’t make it.

Kennecke: That must be tough to think about at your age. I can’t imagine.
Leigha Degen: It is. It’s really scary
Her mother apologizes as she wipes away her tears.

Both servers with high-risk children believe their families will pay the biggest price in ‘getting back to normal.” .

“They say the peak is supposed to happen in June—well you’re opening up and it’s not even June yet,” Smith said.

The South Dakota Department of Labor says it’s encouraging employers to work with their employees on the best way to return safely to the job and practice CDC guidelines. Workers who don’t feel safe can file complaints with OSHA.

The owner of Uncle Louie’s Diner in Sturgis, David Stewart, tells KELOLAND News he has not terminated Stephanie Davis and if she wants to be put back on the schedule, she can be. However, according to the SD Department of Labor, if an employee is called back to work and they refuse to return, they no longer qualify for unemployment.

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