Safeguarding Workers and Our Economy from the Coronavirus -- Part I

Katie Tracy

March 23, 2020

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) sweeps the planet, it threatens billions of people and all but promises a global economic recession of uncertain magnitude. As I'm sure you are, I’m deeply concerned about what this means for my family, my neighbors, and my broader community.

I’m particularly concerned about working people who frequently interact with the general public and provide essential services, and thus cannot work from home. At the forefront of my mind are custodial and janitorial workers, grocery clerks, bank tellers, gas station attendants, bus drivers, garbage and refuse collectors, pharmacists, health care workers, and law enforcement officers. These workers are our new first responders in this time of crisis, and it’s our responsibility, personally and as a nation, to do everything within our power to protect them and their families from a potentially deadly virus.

I’m also concerned about protecting from economic ruin all service workers who suffer job losses or reductions in work due to the virus, such as servers, bartenders, retail clerks, gig workers, construction workers, and many others. Anyone working or suffering from loss of work amid this pandemic deserves strong protections from our government. With leadership from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the House and Senate passed and President Trump signed critical legislation – the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) – to address the crisis. As discussed more below, and as many in Congress acknowledge, while the bill includes several necessary measures, it doesn’t go far enough. Congress, the Trump administration, and state and local governments can and should act swiftly to provide even greater protections to workers and the economy. 

Closure of All Nonessential Businesses: First things first, our federal and state governments need to coordinate the closure of all nonessential businesses in the near-term to protect the employees, the patrons, and the people with whom they later come into contact from preventable infection and possible death. As the crisis drags on and the need for social distancing continues, governments should evaluate whether and to what extent closures should continue, with the focus being on maximizing worker and public health and safety.

By nonessential businesses, I’m referring to bars, restaurants, theaters, event venues, casinos, and most retail stores (e.g., spas, office supply stores, department stores). Essential businesses like grocery stores, retail banks, gas stations, and pharmacies should be asked to review their operations and, where possible, reduce business hours or days, set certain hours for vulnerable patrons, change to pickup and/or delivery only or drive-through only, and the like. The good news is we’re beginning to see announcements like these from states, cities, and even some companies. But we need a more rapid, across-the-board response to realize the full benefits of social distancing.

Paid Sick Leave and Family Medical Leave Guarantee: Every worker across the nation deserves paid sick leave, now and for the long-term, and emergency paid leave during times of crisis. The FFCRA provides some workers with up to 10 days paid leave related to the coronavirus emergency (through December 31), but it leaves behind millions of workers employed by companies with more than 500 employees – ironically, the companies probably best able to absorb the hit. Moreover, the bill allows the Department of Labor to exempt businesses with fewer than 50 employees. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the exemption for large firms leaves 6.8 million private-sector workers without guaranteed paid sick days.

The bill provides paid leave when an employee is compelled by the government to be in quarantine or self-isolation, has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine, is seeking a medical diagnosis for symptoms of COVID-19, is caring for someone who is quarantined or in isolation, is caring for a child whose school or daycare is closed, or is experiencing substantially similar conditions specified by the Department of Health and Human Services.

You can send a message to Congress calling for paid leave for all workers by signing this petition.

In addition to paid sick leave, all workers need an option for extended paid leave during a time of crisis. The FFCRA expands the Family Medical Leave Act (FLMA) to provide up to 12 weeks of leave for workers to care for children who are out of school or daycare due to government-mandated closures, but it doesn’t extend to other workers who may desperately need longer-term leave during a crisis. For workers to which it applies, the bill is limited in that the first 10 days of leave are unpaid (meaning that a worker would need to use their 10 paid sick leave days to cover this period). Further, payment is capped at $200 per day or a total of $10,000. As with the paid leave provisions, the FMLA expansion expires on December 31. The bill also allows the Department of Labor to exclude certain health care providers and emergency responders and to exempt businesses with fewer than 50 employees. In addition to workers caring for children, those who care for someone who is high-risk or immuno-compromised, who live with someone in these categories, or who themselves are sick or forced to quarantine should have the option of taking leave without fear or losing their job or paycheck.

Sens. Patty Murray and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with Rep. Rosa DeLauro, have announced plans to introduce the PAID Leave Act, which will ensure all workers (employees and independent contractors) permanently receive at least seven paid leave days per year. Additionally, in the event of a public health emergency (including the present COVID-19 pandemic), all workers would receive 14 emergency paid sick days and 12 weeks emergency paid family and medical leave, fully reimbursed by the federal government. This bill would close the loopholes of the FFCRA and should be passed immediately.

Health and Safety Standards for Infectious Diseases: All frontline workers deserve protection from infectious diseases on the job. OSHA began working on an infectious disease standard in 2009 after the H1N1 flu pandemic. In 2017, at the end of the Obama administration, the rulemaking was still under development. When the Trump administration took office, the Department of Labor removed the rule from its regulatory agenda altogether and placed it under “long-term actions,” which is to say it expects to take no action in the near future. The rule remains on that do-nothing list today.

On March 6, the AFL-CIO petitioned OSHA for an emergency temporary standard (ETS) for infectious disease to address COVID-19 and, on March 13, CPR joined more than two dozen organizations signing a letter calling on the agency to move forward with this critical rulemaking. OSHA has yet to respond.

The original draft of the FFCRA included the COVID-19 Health Care Worker Protection Act, legislative language that would mandate OSHA issue the ETS to protect healthcare workers and other frontline workers in high-risk positions. CPR joined numerous allies in endorsing this critical legislation; however, it didn’t make it into the final bill. This legislation should be included in the next coronavirus relief package.

Hazard Pay: Any essential worker who must work during a pandemic should be guaranteed hazard pay by the federal government. Hazard pay is an option of last resort to compensate workers for risks they’ve already endured without a choice, which seems appropriate in the face of a pandemic that caught the United States and the rest of the world unprepared. Hazard pay should never be used to justify transferring an employee from a nonhazardous job to a hazardous one, meaning no worker who isn’t currently on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19 should be transferred to a position in harm’s way against their will. Additionally, hazard pay should be in addition to, not an alternative to, employers administering adequate protective measures and ensuring workers have adequate protective equipment and the needed supplies to safeguard against risks of exposure to COVID-19. Government economists could look to high-hazard industries as a model to determine the appropriate level of hazard pay for workers affected by this crisis.

Workers' Compensation: States should immediately act to expand workers’ compensation to all those who are injured or become ill on the job, including from contracting COVID-19 or other deadly viruses. Washington State has already announced measures to expand workers’ compensation to health care workers and first responders affected by COVID-19. Under the expanded provisions, workers who are quarantined after exposure to the virus will qualify for coverage of testing and treatment expenses, as well as time-loss payments. All states should follow suit and, at minimum, expand workers’ compensation to health care workers and first responders. States should also consider expanding coverage to other frontline workers who have no choice but to work amid the pandemic and are exposed to COVID-19 as a result.

In my next post, I'll cover five additional elements necessary to safeguard workers and our economy from COVID-19: Universal basic income, health insurance, unemployment insurance, free childcare for emergency workers, and a debt payment reprieve.

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