US sick leave aid leaves millions of workers in the cold

Some 20 million American workers could be excluded from emergency paid sick leave.

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    Approximately 20 million workers could slip through the net of even emergency measures to extend paid sick leave to Americans who don't currently have it [File:Mike Segar/Reuters]
    Approximately 20 million workers could slip through the net of even emergency measures to extend paid sick leave to Americans who don't currently have it [File:Mike Segar/Reuters]

    It's usually standing room only at O'Duffy's Pub on St Patrick's Day, as patrons clad in green pack into the bar to share a drink or two and plenty of food. But this year, owner Jamie Kavanaugh and one of his bartenders sat alone on the holiday that commemorates Ireland's patron saint. Like restaurants across the country, Kavanaugh's Kalamazoo, Michigan, bar is now only allowed to serve takeout food as part of social distancing ordinances meant to curb the coronavirus pandemic. 

    "People are usually celebrating, smiling, toasting one another, sharing hugs and smiles. Instead, the pub is empty," Kavanaugh told Al Jazeera. "People that came in for takeout didn't even want to come in the door, and they're afraid to use the pen to sign." 

    The city's annual St Patrick's Day parade was also cancelled because of the virus, which has infected more than 4,000 and killed 75 across the Untied States. The virus has also taken a devastating toll on the economy and small businesses like Kavanaugh's. He estimates he's lost between $20,000 and $30,000 in sales over the last four days alone. 

    And he wonders how he'll pay the more than 16 people he employs as servers, bartenders, cooks and dishwashers without decimating his own retirement savings. 

    "It seems like this crisis is going to be what I have been working all my adult life for," Kavanaugh said. "I won't be able to pay myself in the short term. I will have to dig into savings, money that's set aside for my retirement, in order to keep the restaurant going and pay the bills, and do what I can to pay the staff and maintain them." 

    People that came in for takeout didn't even want to come in the door, and they're afraid to use the pen to sign.

    Jamie Kavanaugh, Michigan restaurant owner

    'Hugely devastating'

    The ongoing coronavirus crisis has spurred the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, to take extraordinary measures to shore up the economy, including slashing interest rates to near zero and restarting its crisis-era bond-buying programme to keep credit flowing to consumers and businesses.

    But monetary moves alone are not enough to offset the shock coronavirus is delivering to the US economic ecosystem. 

    The administration of President Donald Trump has unveiled a $1.3 trillion stimulus plan that includes sending $1,000 cheques to Americans. 

    But legions of workers and small business owners are worried the plan will not be enough to stop the US economy from falling into recession - tanking their livelihoods in the process. 

    Among those most at risk of getting sidelined financially are low-wage service industry workers.

    Across the country, service workers have already seen their schedules cut or eliminated as officials urge social distancing and shutter bars, restaurants and non-essential shops in several states. Many are paid below the standard federal minimum wage because they earn tips. In Michigan, where Kavanaugh has his bar, the minimum wage for tipped employees is just $3.67 per hour. 

    Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera that the crisis could be "hugely devastating" for service workers. 

    "They don't have the customers; they're not going to get their wages sometimes. They're not going to get any paid leave, or in cases that they are, they're not going to get those tips," she said. "And we don't know how long this is going to last."

    On Wednesday, President Trump signed into law the The Families First Coronavirus Response Act extending free coronavirus testing to all who need it, as well as enhancing food assistance, unemployment benefits, and paid sick leave and emergency leave to many American workers who don't already have it.  

    The legislation requires businesses with fewer than 500 employees to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave or emergency leave to workers sidelined by coronavirus, and give them the option to take up to 10 weeks off at reduced pay if necessary.

    It also lets the self-employed claim refundable tax credits for expenses if they can't work because of coronavirus. Companies that employ fewer than 50 people can apply for an exemption.

    But the legislation does not apply to large businesses, many of which may or may not offer paid sick leave. And among large businesses that do, not all offer enough to cover a 14-day coronavirus quarantine should a worker be exposed to COVID-19.

    That potentially leaves more than 20 million American workers without paid sick leave, says Gould.

    I think, in general, that people who make a ton of money don't realise how much their ability to be successful depends on the labor of others.

    Lindsey, part-time nanny

    Left out and left behind

    The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the inadequate safety net for many American workers - from patchy US health insurance coverage that leaves more than 27.9 million uninsured to gig workers doing their jobs without employment benefits.  

    Even before the coronavirus outbreak started rampaging across the country, paid sick leave was hugely unequal in the US. Some 94 percent of managers had paid sick leave in 2019, but just 58 percent of service workers did, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. And only about four percent of workers have more than 14 paid sick days per year, which is the minimum time people exposed to the coronavirus are asked to quarantine, according to Gould's analysis.

    "It's not nearly enough," Gould said of the government's economic response so far. "We also need a lot of other kinds of relief for workers and for households. We need to be giving people cash so they can pay their bills." 

    "When we finally get a handle on the virus and we can get on the other side of the health crisis, it will allow the economy to bounce back even faster if people have been able to pay their bills, continue paying their rent and their mortgages, and that money can be used to put food on the table," Gould added. "A lot of people are going to be out of work."

    Paying rent is a big concern for Lucy, who works as an engineering associate with Omni Hotels & Resorts. 

    Lucy, who asked Al Jazeera to change her name to protect her privacy, says she typically works 40 hours per week or more, but does not get paid sick leave or paid vacation time. 

    Because Omni Hotels & Resorts employs 20,000 associates over its 60 hotels in the US, Canada and Mexico, it is not required to provide paid sick leave under the newly-passed coronavirus aid legislation. The company did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.

    "With no sick days and no vacation days at the moment, it is kind of scary. I just pray this virus hurries up and runs its course so things can get back to normal," Lucy told Al Jazeera. 

    Even if she does not have to take time off should she fall sick, the crisis has already taken its toll on her paycheque. Lucy says she used to earn a little more than $500 per week for five days of work. This week, she has had just three days of work, she says, and next week she is scheduled to work only two days. With rent at $833 per month plus food for her two children, she worries about how she'll make ends meet. 

    But the bills keep coming. Lucy says her corporate landlord has not shown any indication that payments can be deferred because of coronavirus. 

    Some service workers are calling on employers who depend on them year-round to have their backs now. 

    Lindsey - who asked Al Jazeera to withhold her surname to protect her privacy - works as a nanny and a personal assistant in Los Angeles. She says she earns between $15 and $25 an hour, but has no paid sick leave at either job. And now coronavirus has thrown both of those jobs into question. 

    Many of the families she nannies for have changed their schedules, and the film festival she is helping to organise this summer may be cancelled. 

    "My hours are really unpredictable now. The kids are all home from school and the parents are all working from home," Lindsey told Al Jazeera. "And because everyone who works in the TV and film industry is on hold, I am worried that my hours are about to totally disappear." 

    That leaves Lindsey in a particularly tough spot, since she has never been paid as an employee, only as an independent contractor or under the table in cash. That means she might not be eligible to collect unemployment benefits. Although the new legislation would help self-employed people, Lindsey is not sure she would qualify because she doesn't have documentation of her income from several of her employers.

    "There is no job security in my particular position, in part because I work part time for multiple families," she said. "Other nannies may have contracts that guarantee them hours or paid time off, and I tried to find a position that was above board, included benefits and got me a W-2 [federal tax document] and all that, but ultimately there aren't that many families that are willing to do that." 

    Lindsey wants the families she has taken care of as well as other more well-off Americans to realise that her fortunes and those of other service workers are very much tied to theirs. 

    "I think, in general, that people who make a ton of money don't realise how much their ability to be successful depends on the labour of others," Lindsey said. "Those people deserve to be able to be human and get sick and not have it be catastrophic to their entire lives, just like a CEO or vice president or anyone out there with a guaranteed salary." 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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