BUSINESS

Workers Laid Off Over Coronavirus Look For A Lifeline

The newly jobless are applying for unemployment benefits and wondering about their health care. "It just keeps getting worse," one worker said.

On Friday afternoon, about a dozen cafeteria workers at the Knights of Columbus headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut, learned they would be laid off because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

With Knights of Columbus employees working remotely and no longer dining in the cafeteria, there would be no need for the hourly workers to be serving hot meals. The same thing is happening at other corporate campuses around the country as more employees work remotely to curb the pandemic, putting service workers’ paychecks in jeopardy.

“I think this is a very troubling sign of what’s going to happen to low-wage workers. People in the service industry are going to get slammed,” said Seth Goldstein, a business representative for the Office of Professional Employees International Union Local 153, which represents the cafeteria workers.

The New Haven workers who lost their jobs are employed by a contractor, the food service giant Aramark, which did not respond to requests for comment. A worker who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Knights of Columbus agreed to pay their health care premiums while they are out of work. 

Their supervisors gave them printouts instructing them on how to apply for unemployment benefits and told them not to come to work Monday.

“I’ve never collected unemployment before,” the worker said.

It’s impossible to say how many workers have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus so far, since the most recent data on jobless claims wouldn’t capture everything that’s happened in the past week. But it appears the preventive measures taken to slow transmission of the virus are already taking a toll on workers in travel and hospitality as business drops off.

Congress is bracing for a surge in lost wages across the country: The House passed a relief package early Saturday that creates a temporary safety net to mitigate the economic fallout. The bill provides two weeks of sick leave for some workers who are quarantined or must care for someone at home during the crisis, to be funded by the federal government. It also allows some workers to take paid family medical leave and receive two-thirds of their normal pay.

But those measures don’t apply to workers who are getting laid off, like those at the Knights of Columbus headquarters. 

To help those workers, the federal government is increasing funding to state unemployment programs — and allocating extra funds for states that waive rules that burden claimants. But in general, unemployment benefits only replace a portion of a worker’s lost wages. 

Some workers have already been shocked by how quickly their jobs vanished.

Renee Munholand works as a rigger, hanging sound equipment, lighting and props for concerts and corporate events. Her home state of Washington has been an epicenter of the outbreak, and Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has banned public gatherings over 250 people in three counties where the virus is prevalent. Munholand, 44, immediately lost all her bookings in the coming weeks.

“It’s just all cancellations ― my calendar is wide open,” she said. 

She applied for unemployment through the state and said she has already been approved, though she will have to wait for her first check. A greater concern is her health insurance. Her stagehand union provides a health plan but she must work a certain number of hours each month to qualify. 

Have you lost income because of the coronavirus? Tell us about it. Please leave a phone number if you’re willing to be interviewed. 

All told, Munholand has lost around six events, including one put on by Microsoft, and Seattle’s annual comic book convention. She thought she still had a gig lined up for Sunday but it got canceled on Thursday. 

“It just keeps getting worse,” she said. “I have a little bit of money saved, which is going quickly right now. ... I have medical bills. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Some states have tried to make it easier to collect unemployment benefits because of the sudden loss of business. 

Washington is letting companies put workers on standby for eight weeks if they have to close down temporarily, and allowing the workers to collect benefits without searching for another job. Workers who’ve been instructed to self-quarantine are encouraged to use paid sick leave benefits first if they have them. Under Washington law, workers already earn at least one hour of sick leave for every 40 they work.

I think this is a very troubling sign of what's going to happen to low-wage workers. Seth Goldstein, Office of Professional Employees International Union

California has also taken steps to streamline benefits during the crisis. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued an executive order Thursday waiving the one-week waiting period for workers who qualify for unemployment or disability benefits due to coronavirus. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) also did away with the unemployment waiting period so workers would qualify immediately. 

The pandemic has drawn unprecedented attention to the holes in the U.S. safety net compared to other developed countries. There is no federal law requiring employers to give their workers paid sick leave, and the guarantee for family and medical leave does not stipulate that the time must be paid. Although a growing number of states have such mandates on the books, many still do not. The gaps have left low-wage workers particularly vulnerable if they’ve been quarantined or told not to come into work.

The emergency plan passed by the House, which the White House has signaled support for, creates a short-term backstop but no permanent mandates on employers. Democrats tried to include a provision that would force employers to offer two weeks of emergency leave and allow workers to accrue a week of paid sick leave each year. Republicans objected and the measure was ultimately dropped.

Some workers face the possibility of losing their employer-sponsored health coverage in the middle of a public health crisis. The Aramark employee said workers appreciated that the Knights of Columbus would cover their premiums while they are out of work, but some already forego the coverage because they cannot afford it. In that case, the worker said, all they have to hope for is unemployment benefits.

Munholand said she is glad she has money saved, even if she’s burning through it now, and she feels worse for other stagehands who may not be able to pay their bills.

“I have warm clothes. I’m in a house. I have food,” she said. “Other than that I have control over nothing.”

Keep up with the latest updates on the coronavirus at our live blog.

CONVERSATIONS