Businesses around the country are taking precautions to keep their workforces healthy and away from the coronavirus by asking employees to work from home. Offices are empty, people are dialing into meetings from their couches, and business travel has largely been suspended. However, not everyone’s jobs are as portable as a work computer and an internet connection, and not every company exists in an industry where the location of its workers is flexible enough to support that.
For some, if their employer shuts down, it means they go without pay, especially in the customer service industry where much of the work is face-to-face with customers. If they remain open and an employee is forced to take time off to self-quarantine, the lack of federally mandated sick leave has the same effect.
Experts are advising people to stay home if they’re sick, but following that advice could mean not making rent for a majority of U.S. workers. According to data from the Labor Department, one in four workers has no access to paid sick leave. This disproportionately affects the country’s lowest earners. Only six percent of the highest earners have no access compared to two-thirds of lower earners.
More specifically, 40% of service jobs such as restaurants, retail stores, or child care centers do not have paid sick time. In an annual poll asking Americans how much money they have in a savings account, results showed that 69% of respondents had $1,000 or less.
Without paid sick leave, it is unlikely that those people could afford to miss a paycheck without facing serious financial ramifications. And, the United States has long been ignoring the need to mandate more stable working conditions and safety nets for workers, but it has taken a burgeoning pandemic to make them pay attention.
But, there's a substantial side effect of people staying home in general — it can damage a business' bottom line. If fewer people travel, airlines lose money. If people aren’t going out to eat, restaurants will struggle to make ends meet. There is an ever-growing fear that a lasting symptom of the coronavirus outbreak is a recession or economic collapse.
The stock market has been dealing with considerable losses for the past several weeks as COVID-19 cases multiplied and spread to more countries. Stocks in the U.S. had their worst week since the financial crisis and the economic disruptions caused by the virus show no signs improving anytime soon. Stocks in airlines took a considerable hit as traveling has slowed between government-mandated restrictions and companies suspending employee travel.
To address this, congressional leaders are discussing ways to provide relief for workers. Some ideas include small business loans, cuts to payroll taxes, and legislation that protects hourly wage earners who may have to miss work as a result of self-quarantine or their employers shutting down temporarily to quell the spread of the virus.
Last week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions introduced a bill that would require employers to offer paid sick leave as well as give an additional 14 days of paid leave in the event of a public health emergency. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer called for more options on Sunday including paid sick leave for workers under quarantine and for those whose children are out of school as a result of the coronavirus. Currently, those added costs would be absorbed by employers. Some policymakers are considering assistance to small businesses faced with employees and customers staying home during the outbreak in the form of loans or grants.
The lack of federally mandated sick leave has been a problem for far longer than the coronavirus outbreak, and it will continue to be a problem after unless lawmakers pass legislation making it a priority rather than something some companies do voluntarily. The United States has been behind other developed countries in regard to supporting workers through legislation, and a novel virus provides a glaring spotlight to its shortcomings.