Employment and Jobs

Coronavirus Highlights Broken Safety Net for Millions of Workers

March 13, 2020  • Shelly Steward

The COVID-19 global pandemic highlights what has been a reality for millions in America through the 21st century: an inadequate safety net that leaves many without necessary resources in times of need, and puts everyone at risk. The struggle is particularly acute for growing numbers of non-traditional workers, those working outside of a permanent, full-time employment relationship–what is sometimes called “the gig economy.” This includes those who rely on online platforms, but also temp-agency and subcontracted workers, domestic and care workers, part-time and on-call workers. These workers tend to have demanding and often unpredictable schedules, no paid sick leave, and few job protections. Very few of these workers can continue in stable jobs while working from home. The spread of coronavirus combined with a broken system of workplace benefits and protections means that these workers–along with millions of traditional workers and everyone who depends on care, service, and delivery work–face an uncertain and alarming future.

Almost a quarter of workers in the US have no paid sick leave, including 42 percent of service-sector workers, 57 percent of part-time workers, and nearly 70 percent of the lowest-income earners. The lack of paid sick leave in the United States presents immediate financial challenges for millions of workers and alarming public health challenges for the country. For those without paid sick leave, missing a day of work means missing a day of pay. Basic expenses can quickly become out of reach, and several days missed can lead to financial ruin. The financial need and employer pressure to work no matter what can drive people to report to work while sick, worsening their own condition and, in the case of a virus, contributing to its spread. Metropolitan areas with mandatory paid sick leave policies have been found to experience lower rates of influenza.

Beyond sick leave, the uncertainty of our current situation exacerbates how precarious everyday life is for so many workers who lack a safety net. Pandemic response heightens the volatility and unpredictability of non-traditional and low-wage work. As increasing numbers of white-collar workers stay home, some in the service and hospitality industries will lose work as fewer people eat out or travel. Others who deliver groceries or provide in-home care will face increasing demands and find it difficult to take care of themselves and their families.

Almost a quarter of workers in the US have no paid sick leave.

In response to the outbreak, a range of companies have committed to expanding their sick-leave policies, including those that hire independent, subcontracted, and hourly workers. For example, Walmart, the country’s largest employer, has offered up to two weeks paid leave for workers, including part-time hourly workers, who have been quarantined by public health officials or their store, or who have tested positive for the virus. Google has created a fund to provide its “extended workforce,” which includes subcontracted and temporary workers, sick pay should they have symptoms of COVID-19 or be placed under quarantine. Online platform companies, including Uber, Lyft, and Instacart, have indicated they would offer some form of paid sick time to their independent-contractor drivers if tested positive, though details are unclear. Policymakers, including Future of Work Initiative Honorary Co-Chair Senator Mark Warner, have encouraged platform companies to take similar measures.

The responses from these companies are an important step in improving the economic security of workers during a difficult time. But they are not sufficient on their own. Many of these programs require a COVID-19 diagnosis, and so are reliant on accessible and affordable testing. In addition, they tend to specify a period of time, indicating more work needs to be done to establish lasting policies for the health and security of workers. Though these efforts should be both applauded and expanded, workers’ safety should not depend on the willingness of individual employers to provide basic benefits that are essential for social and individual health. Paid sick leave should be available to every worker, through employer mandates and portable programs that allow sick time to accrue across multiple employers or hiring entities.

Congress is considering a range of both short- and long-term measures to address the spread of coronavirus and lack basic supports, including paid leave programs, Unemployment Insurance expansion, and affordable testing for the virus. As these proposals are considered, states and cities can take several steps to protect their residents. In many cases, these can be executed expediently and address regional needs.

States with existing paid sick and medical leave programs can review eligibility criteria to ensure all workers are able to benefit, and that coronavirus-related conditions are covered. Twelve states and more than twenty cities mandated paid sick leave prior to this outbreak, and serve as a model for what such requirements can look like. States with paid medical leave laws, which typically partially cover lost income during times of serious medical conditions, can be clarified to include self-quarantine for those who may be infected and unable to work from home. States can also consider mandating employers to provide paid leave to all workers, as Colorado did with its Health Emergency Leave with Pay Rules. The rule, passed March 11, requires service-sector employers to provide up to four days of paid sick leave to employees with symptoms who are being tested for COVID-19.

In order to increase access to medical advice, states and cities may be able to expand telemedicine services and engage employers in covering the associated costs. Telemedicine services, which patients receive via phone or internet, may be well-suited to identifying and treating infectious diseases, protecting healthcare workers and reserving hospital resources for those who need them most. Congress’s emergency funding package included an expansion of telehealth services for Medicare recipients, and Maryland’s Senate has introduced a bill that would expand telehealth services, including authorizing out-of-state providers. These services could be funded through employers of those unlikely to be able to access care, including gig platforms and companies that hire many non-traditional and hourly workers. As a model, the Black Car Fund in New York provides a telemedicine service to independent drivers (along with workers’ compensation and vision care), funded by a surcharge on passengers.

The current public health crisis is bringing broader awareness to the devastating impacts of a broken and uneven safety net.

Beyond healthcare, cities and states may be able to boost community safety net resources, including access to food, water, and hygiene products, in addition to testing. Many states and cities have declared states of emergency, which can allow resources to be deployed faster. Across the country, lost wages mean tighter budgets, and school closures can mean students from Kindergarten through college lose access to food and shelter. These needs may be exacerbated by increased federal restrictions on SNAP benefits set to take effect April 1. 

In addition to work missed for health reasons, many will lose wages as economic activity slows, especially those unable to work remotely and rely on tourism, hospitality, or trade. States can consider establishing emergency funds to assist these workers when they lose wages or jobs, and review Unemployment Insurance (UI) programs to ensure workers who lose income can receive benefits. The Department of Labor offered states guidance on how to approach UI requirements in the context of coronavirus, and an Aspen Future of Work report provides suggestions on expanding coverage to more workers. Outside of the UI system, emergency cash transfers can keep families afloat during challenging times. Transfers can be distributed quickly, and do not tie assistance to work at a time when work is unstable. Though most feasible at a federal level, states and cities may be able to engage with local partners to innovate on short-term assistance programs.

The current public health crisis is bringing broader awareness to the devastating impacts of a broken and uneven safety net. Employers should continue to provide critical benefits that ensure workers have needed health care, safety, and a financial cushion to weather the economic shock of the virus. But we can’t rely on an employer-by-employer approach. For this reason, policymakers at all levels must act to support and provide stability to all workers, especially those most vulnerable, including gig economy, low-wage, and hourly workers. A comprehensive and timely response has the potential not just to promote health and stability through the coronavirus outbreak, but also to provide a road map for longer-term reforms to our safety net that are needed to help all workers succeed in today’s economy.

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