Avoiding Coronavirus May Be a Luxury Some Workers Can’t Afford
Stay home from work if you get sick. See a doctor. Use a separate bathroom from the people you live with. Prepare for schools to close, and to work from home. These are measures the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended to slow a coronavirus outbreak in the United States.
Yet these are much easier to do for certain people — in particular, high-earning professionals. Service industry workers, like those in restaurants, retail, child care and the gig economy, are much less likely to have paid sick days, the ability to work remotely or employer-provided health insurance.
The disparity could make the new coronavirus, which causes a respiratory illness known as Covid-19, harder to contain in the United States than in other rich countries that have universal benefits like health care and sick leave, experts say. A large segment of workers are not able to stay home, and many of them work in jobs that include high contact with other people. It could also mean that low-income workers are hit harder by the virus.
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Unequal access to precautionary measures cuts along the same lines that divide the United States in other ways: income, education and race.
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Portia Green, 33, is a restaurant worker in New York. She has no paid sick leave or health insurance. If schools closed, as a single mother she’d have no child care. A day off work means losing around $100 in pay, she said, and if she had to take more than a few days off, losing her job. The restaurants she has worked for are too understaffed to call in backup workers easily, she said, and the expectation is that you show up unless you’re “green.”
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The biggest disparity for workers is access to health care: In the United States, some 27.5 million people lack any form of health insurance. That makes them less likely to seek medical care when they become ill or to have access to preventive health benefits that can help them stave off illness. The uninsured are disproportionately low income.
Workers also have unequal access to remote working. The government recommended that people work from home in a coronavirus outbreak, but just 29 percent of American workers can do so, according to Labor Department data. They are most likely to be highly educated and high earners.
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For many workers, being sick means choosing between staying home and getting paid. One-quarter of workers have no access to paid sick days, according to Labor Department data: two-thirds of the lowest earners but just 6 percent of the highest earners. Just a handful of states and local governments have passed sick leave laws.
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He will not receive paid sick days until he works at his job half a year, and even then, plans to save them for dealing with a chronic disease, hemophilia. “I think people should stay home,” said Mr. Garcia, who is helping an advocacy group on issues like paid leave called Family Values at Work. “But I know I’d need my infusions, whereas if I’m coughing and have a fever, I could push through five hours.”
Evidence shows that paid sick time reduces the spread of illness. A working paper on state laws that require employers to offer paid sick leave found that statewide influenza infections fell 11 percent in the first year after enactment compared with places that made no such change. An earlier paper, on city laws, showed a similar, but smaller, effect. (There are differences between influenza and the new coronavirus, but the two diseases are transmitted in similar ways.)
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