Worker health is central to public health
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In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, workers are taking to social media to share their anxieties about a variety of workplace inequities that could worsen the crisis: lack of sick leave; lack of health insurance; lack of safety standards. Workers and unions are organizing to demand more protections, with Fight for $15 workers, domestic workers, nurses, and flight attendants leading the way. If there is a prime lesson in this crisis, it is that our interconnected lives depend on workplace protections for everyone. Luckily, we have the solutions to ensure that the most vulnerable individuals have better protections as workers, so that families, and our delicate human web, can stay safe and healthy.

As the coronavirus spreads, health officials are advising people to stay home if they’re feeling sick. This is especially important for people working in jobs that require substantial direct contact with others, such as food preparers and servers, taxi and ride-share drivers, and day care and homecare providers. Yet because these are underpaid jobs, these are precisely the workers who can least afford to miss work.

People of color, in particular, are disproportionately represented in underpaid and low-quality jobs that often do not provide sick leave, paid leave or other benefits. This occupational segregation exacerbates the massive racial wealth gap in our country: $140,500 in wealth for the average white family compared to $6,300 for Latinx families and $3,400 for black families. And it means that families of color are least able to weather the impact of a serious medical issue necessitating time off from work to recuperate or care for sick family members. Workers of color are often one missed paycheck away from a cascade of disasters, from going without food or medication, to having their utilities shut off, to getting evicted.

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Black and Latinx workers are overrepresented in underpaid gig work available through apps like Uber, Postmates, and Amazon Flex—work that puts people at high risk of getting and transmitting the coronavirus and other communicable diseases like the flu. Currently, gig workers—who are more often than not wrongly classified as independent contractors even though many are not in business for themselves—are excluded from nearly all workplace protections and benefits, including unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and employer-sponsored health insurance.

We need to ensure that work protections like paid sick leave and paid leave are available to all workers. We may need an emergency paid leave fund administered by the federal government to provide lost wages to workers who stay home because they or their family members are sick or quarantined. We may also need to implement disaster unemployment insurance in hard-hit communities so that all workers who temporarily or permanently lose their jobs because of the coronavirus have a source of income while they recuperate, care for sick relatives, or look for a new job.

While these emergency measures are critical to halting the spread of the virus and providing support to people who fall ill, they are band-aids that cannot by themselves fix the underlying problem: our current policies fail to provide basic economic security to large swathes of people. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must enact an Emergency Temporary Standard to ensure employers are providing the necessary protective equipment and training to protect health care workers in traditional health care settings, as well as home health care workers, school nurses, prison nurses and more.

Congress must pass the Paid Sick Days for Public Health Emergencies and Personal and Family Care Act, which would enact paid sick leave generally (plus enhanced and widely available paid sick leave during public health emergencies), and the FAMILY Act, which would create a paid family and medical leave policy. Federal and state governments should work together to increase funding for unemployment insurance and expand its accessibility. The federal government should reform Disaster Unemployment Assistance to meet the demands of a pandemic. And we must ensure that every person is guaranteed quality health care.

The coronavirus has shined a light on the fragility and inadequacy of our worker health policies. We have an opportunity to come together and ensure that all people have the health care, paid sick leave, and economic security to guarantee their health and safety. Worker health is public health.

Rebecca Dixon is the Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).