Image Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

With COVID-19 circulating in the news, social media, and daily conversations, I’m reminded of how fortunate I am.

“If you’re sick, just stay home.”

Easy words to say, but not everyone is able to take them to heart without serious consequences

There was a time when getting sick meant I’d have to lose a day of pay. Such a thing usually resulted in deciding what bill wasn’t going to get paid this month or what day I’d skip meals.

If the illness was serious, I’d have to figure out how to pay for the doctor’s co-pay fees, and any prescriptions I might need, on top of the other stuff, leaving me in a situation that was compounded by the stress of missing multiple days of pay.

I recently returned from a conference in San Francisco, where I and tens of thousands of other people spent the week roaming the city attending conference functions, dinners, and other daily events. I spent a lot of time with friends and peers that week, so there were plenty of handshakes and hugs.

The conference organizers had hand sanitizing stations spread-out across conference space, and even though I used them frequently, I still wonder if I was exposed. Yet, I’m not part of the high-risk populous, so my concern isn’t a major one.

In the days that followed my trip, there were several conference cancellations announced, including some notable events such as SXSW, Google I/O, and Facebook’s F8.

Should the worst happen and I become infected by COVID-19, which brings me to the point of why I’m lucky, I can simply work from home.

The same can be said for all of my co-workers. In fact, we’re encouraged to work from home whenever we want to - not just because of recent events.

Yet, there are those in the workforce that simply do not have that option, and worse, face the same fears and concerns I had so many years ago.

Recently U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner sent a letter to Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates, Instacart, and Grubhub urging them to “publicly commit to prioritizing your workers’ economic security and the broader public health during this response.”

As the Washington Post reported on March 2, the letter continued:

“gig workers – and contingent workers more broadly – are among the most vulnerable workers to a potential spread of the [Coronavirus]. Because they are classified by platform companies as independent contractors, many gig workers do not have access to paid leave, employer-provided health insurance, and other benefits. As a result, many of these workers risk missing income or paying high out-of-pocket healthcare costs if they fully comply with public health instructions to be tested, self-quarantine, or take other ‘social distancing’ measures.”

It isn’t just gig workers. Staff at hotels, restaurants, and other hourly-level places of employment, as well as trade jobs (plumbers can’t work remote) are all facing two different types of risk - one is medical, and the other is financial.

Working from home is a luxury that these workers simply do not have in a majority of cases. Health care workers are also on the can’t really work from home list, and they’re among the most exposed when it comes to COVID-19.

There are companies trying to address this situation. Microsoft has committed to paying hourly staff their normal wage in the event their hours are cut.

“We recognize the hardship that lost work can mean for hourly employees. As a result, we’ve decided that Microsoft will continue to pay all our vendor hourly service providers their regular pay during this period of reduced service needs.” - Brad Smith, President, Microsoft

Locally, here in Indianapolis, Eli Lilly has asked employees to work from home if possible, “out of an abundance of caution” in order to reduce risk.

“We have a unique responsibility to ensure continuity in our manufacturing facilities and R&D labs. By minimizing staff in our offices, we are reducing risk of inadvertent transmission to workers who don’t have the option of continuing to do their important work from home (particularly those who work with specialized equipment or in specialized facilities)”

But Microsoft, Lilly, and some of the others who have been in the news are the exception, not the norm. The CDC, officially, urges employers to emphasize “staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene.”

Other recommended actions include:

  • Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.

  • Talk with companies that provide your business with contract or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.

  • Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work

  • Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.

COVID-19 came out of nowhere, a black swan event if you will, but the impact in the short-term are going to be those who are already struggling. Hourly workers are often uninsured or under-insured, so when they get sick, they don’t go to the doctor - they can’t afford to.

There needs to be something more for them, and assistance made available so that work shortages and stoppages, either due to sick relatives or slow business, have little to no impact. No one should be forced to go to work sick, or choose between work and a sick child.