Respect Accessibility

How unsalaried workers are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic

Customers wait in line to buy water and other supplies at a Costco in Burbank, California.  Robyn Beck / AFP

Story at a glance

  • Major cities around the country have taken drastic measures to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
  • Groups larger than 50 are being discouraged from congregating, and restaurants and bars are being told to shut their doors.
  • The closures call into question how the government and employers will work to protect their non-salaried employees during this time.

The number of coronavirus cases in the United States continues to rise, with CNN reporting at least 3,485 known cases and 65 fatalities so far. Despite an initially dismissive attitude towards the virus, the Trump administration has now labeled the spread of COVID-19 a national emergency, a decision that rode the coattails of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) official announcement of a pandemic. 

Citizens across the country are being strongly advised by federal and local officials to practice social distancing, or the purposeful act of maintaining space between yourself and others. These advisories took a strong leap forward over the weekend, with cities like Washington, D.C., and Seattle closing all bars and restaurants to prevent further spread of the virus. Entire states such as Illinois and Ohio have also taken the same precaution, despite Ohio only having 30 confirmed cases at this point.

Who has access to sick leave?

For those with paid salaries and health insurance, these directions are feasible. It calls into question what will happen for the millions of workers across the country who are unsalaried and may be living paycheck-to-paycheck, such as bar and restaurant staff. 

Last year, 24 percent of U.S. civilian workers, more than 33 million, had no access to sick leave according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).


READ MORE OF OUR BREAKING NEWS ABOUT CORONAVIRUS

CAN LYSOL OR CLOROX KILL THE CORONAVIRUS?

IS CORONAVIRUS MORE FATAL TO MEN THAN WOMEN?

CAN YOU GET CORONAVIRUS TWICE?

ARE KIDS IMMUNE TO CORONAVIRUS? CHILDREN SHOW SURPRISING RESISTANCE–BUT COULD BE SPREADING IT 


While some of the country’s biggest companies are adjusting their policies because of these unprecedented events, there are still millions of employees who worry that falling ill will leave them in a precarious financial position, and many now have no choice as to whether or not they are able to work due to the government mandated closures. 

The consequences of going into work while sick can have a significant affect on your healthy coworkers. A report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that employees who went to work while sick with H1N1, or swine flu, caused the infection of as many as 7 million co-workers in 2009.

The BLS’s 2019 National Compensation Survey (NCS) found that, for civilian workers, paid sick leave, while nearly universal at the upper ends of the wage distribution, becomes scarcer the less money one makes. For instance, 92 percent of workers in the top quarter of earnings (meaning hourly wages greater than $32.21) have access to some form of paid sick leave, versus only 51 percent of workers earning wages in the lowest quarter ($13.80 or less). Among the lowest-earning 10th — those whose wages are $10.80 an hour or less — just 31 percent have paid sick leave.

Eleven states and Washington, D.C., as well as 22 cities and counties, have laws that require employers to give workers paid sick days, usually between five and seven days a year. These paid sick days accrue over time and can be used to recover from an illness, care for a sick family member or seek preventive medical care, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy.

How companies are reacting

Some of the nation’s largest companies, from Walmart to Trader Joe’s, have begun rolling out special benefits to their millions of workers. Walmart has been cutting its hours until further notice, and says it’s waiving its attendance policy through the end of April (for now), telling workers who are sick or feel uncomfortable coming to work to stay home using their paid time off. 

Employees required to quarantine, either by Walmart or a government agency, will receive up to two weeks of pay. If a Walmart associate tests positive for coronavirus that person will receive up to two weeks of pay. After that, if the employee can’t work, that person may receive pay for up to 26 weeks, according to the company. 

Trader Joe’s, known as America’s best employer, encouraged workers to stay home if they are feeling sick. They have said that those days wouldn’t come out of employees’ paid sick-day bank.

Some Uber and Lyft drivers filed a complaint last Wednesday in California, asking courts to issue immediate injunctions forcing the ride-sharing companies to classify them as employees in accordance with AB 5. When Changing America asked for comment, Lyft replied “We are monitoring the coronavirus situation closely, and taking action based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. Our focus is on keeping our riders, drivers and team members safe. We have an internal task force dedicated solely to this issue, and are prepared to take action as needed.”

On their website, Lyft has said they will provide funds to drivers should they be diagnosed with COVID-19 or put under individual quarantine by a public health agency. “This helps support drivers financially when they can’t drive, while also protecting our riders’ health.” They will provide funds to affected drivers based on the rides they provided on the Lyft platform over the last four weeks.

Uber, the country’s largest ride sharing platform, is giving away more 300,000 free meals to health workers and first responders who are helping combat the coronavirus pandemic. The company’s Uber Eats service is also waiving delivery fees for small businesses in some places.


SEE MORE ABOUT THE CURRENT CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

NOBEL LAUREATE PREDICTS US WILL HAVE MUCH FASTER CORONAVIRUS RECOVERY THAN EXPECTED

WHO IS DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, AMERICA’S TOP CORONAVIRUS FIGHTER?

THESE ARE THE 6 WAYS THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC COULD END

THE EFFECT OF CORONAVIRUS IS SO EXTREME YOU CAN SEE IT FROM SPACE

HERE ARE THE BEST MAPS TO CHECK OUT THE CURRENT STATE OF THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC