3 things local leaders must do to protect workers during coronavirus

The measures already taken are commendable, but there are serious gaps in our COVID-19 emergency response.

A nearly empty dining area near where food trucks park In Pioneer Square is pictured, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. In efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on large public gatherings in three counties in the metro Seattle area. (Stephen Brashear/AP)

My office works to enhance public health and safety, with particular focus on vulnerable populations and those in the informal economy. We are also an employer and, like others, have had a crash course in how to act responsibly toward our staff, partners and the greater community during the COVID-19 crisis. I gratefully acknowledge that our local officials are exceeding the competency and leadership of the (official) federal government by orders of magnitude. That said, my perspective as an employer and our work with vulnerable populations have highlighted that there are serious gaps in emergency measures that local and state officials should immediately address.

The efficacy of the measures King County and Gov. Jay Inslee announced yesterday depend heavily on voluntary compliance (with instructions to isolate when sick, cancel gatherings over 250 and gatherings under 250 unless transmission protections are taken). These measures come with substantial hardship for many. People and businesses — those close to the margin, but also others — typically do what they feel they must to take care of themselves. Thus, it is key to compliance for businesses and individuals to understand immediately that they will be made whole and can maintain their livelihood, if they do the right thing in forgoing normal activity.

There have been efforts in that direction.  The state’s announcement earlier this week about how further unemployment benefits may be provided once workers tap out their employer-provided sick leave is a good sign; so was the city of Seattle’s announcement about potential relief for some small businesses.

But these initiatives don’t go far enough.

Here are three urgent gaps that need to be addressed in the next few days.

Protect contractors and people working in the informal economy. The governor's commendable announcements Wednesday on economic security for workers are premised on employee status (sick workers are asked to stay home, use up their sick leave, then apply for the state unemployment insurance program, which will be adjusted to respond to this situation). But many in our economy are rightly or wrongly classified as independent contractors, don't have sick leave and likely believe they are not eligible for this unemployment insurance modification. Also, they may rightly fear losing their contracts or being replaced if they stop work for a protracted period. Explicit provisions for relief are essential for independent contractors who are out of work while ill or in quarantine while recovering — or who have household members who have been ill — so that these contractors can afford to do the right thing and stay home when they should. Additionally, a ban on termination of employees for health-related absence should include bans on termination of contractor relationships for the same reasons.

Similarly, many make ends meet in the informal economy, and can be expected to continue to do so unless they too are eligible for relief if they stay home or use social distancing. There should be a no-questions-asked minimum income program established immediately for people who don't have work in the formal economy, making it less necessary to engage in underground subsistence activity.

Don't make employees use sick leave when they do the right thing and stay home, and ban terminations resulting from health-related absence. Inslee’s announcement Wednesday relied heavily on the idea that employees will exhaust their sick leave if they comply with guidance to stay home when they or others in their household have respiratory symptoms or fever. This is a mistake. Whenever people lose something of value, they have an incentive to avoid the requested action. In this case, it's not a benefit to them to stay home — it's a benefit to the whole community. Instead, employers should be urged or ordered not to charge employees' leave banks for staying home, when it is in the clear interest of other employees, customers and the public for them to do so. Workers know they may need that leave for noncoronavirus reasons later in the year, and may come to work even when they clearly shouldn’t if they are going to be charged sick leave. Also, state or local authorities should use emergency powers to ban terminations or adverse actions (even where otherwise permitted by law) based on health-related absence for the period of crisis, even when absences exceed company's normal leave policies.

Businesses need FEMA-style assurance that they will be made whole for doing the right thing. People make decisions they think they will be able to survive making. The notion that there “may” be relief for your business is likely too vague to reassure a business close to the margin, or even a profit-motivated business whose behavior we still need to modify, to adjust business as usual for public health. There needs to be global language around ensuring a baseline level of economic stability for businesses that can trace harm to protective measures against COVID-19, similar to Federal Emergency Management Agency relief after natural disasters. With FEMA relief, everyone knows it's coming, and it will just be a matter of establishing the specific impact to their business. So far, these assurances are absent in the national and local conversation about COVID-19 relief. Obviously, the equity issues here are most pronounced for small businesses operating close to the margin. But we also care about the behavior of larger businesses as well. All actors need assurance that they will be made whole up to a ceiling (so the public isn't replacing projected astronomical profits but. rather, acting as an insurer against harm).

These are measures focused on the employment context. There are, of course, other gaps.  Many voices are rightly calling for rental assistance programs to ward off eviction without stiffing landlords and piling up arrears; food and utility assistance; and child care supports to alleviate the impact of emergency measures to control the epidemic. And many are organizing to safeguard the health of detained populations. But the foremost key to social distancing is addressing the economic needs that force people to be out and about despite public health guidance to the contrary. We must keep front and center the actual economic realities of gig workers, contractors and people working in the underground economy, to enable them to stay away from their regular work when they should — and we must plainly and simply guarantee businesses that they’ll be made whole for doing the right thing now.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Lisa Daugaard

Lisa Daugaard

Lisa Daugaard is Director of the Public Defender Association and a MacArthur 'genius' fellow.