Our support systems are stronger, but still don’t cover many modern job situations
by Marilyn Watkins
The coronavirus pandemic has most of us hunkering down at home and thousands of businesses forced to close their doors. New unemployment insurance claims from out-of-work Washingtonians rose the second week in March to more than 14,000, from an average of about 6,000 a week the previous month.
Last week, a whopping 133,464 people applied for unemployment, 41,000 of them from restaurants and food services alone. “Essential workers” who continue on the job providing health care, food, childcare, and infrastructure support are putting their own lives and their loved ones at risk every day by interacting with the public and exposing themselves to possible infection.
An overriding concern for everyone right now is how to survive this crisis period – literally and financially – and get through to the other side, whenever that comes. Between policies Washington State had already adopted, recent emergency actions by our state and local officials, and three packages of relief now passed by Congress, individuals and households who can’t work from home have options for maintaining income in a variety of job- and health-related circumstances. With temporary suspension of evictions and utility shut-offs, paid leave, vastly expanded unemployment insurance, and cash grants coming to most households, most of us who hadn’t already been pushed to the margins will probably muddle through.
The two longer-term questions for all of us are:
Can small businesses survive?
Will they be around to re-employ workers and help revive our communities? The big boys, like the airline industry and big hotels, got their bail out from Congress, but what about Main Street businesses? The most recent Congressional package provides for immediate cash grants through the Small Business Administration, as well as for loans and tax credits, but many have already experienced weeks with few or no customers.
Can we come out of this better and stronger?
Will we have more genuine reward for work, access to opportunity, respect for human dignity, and thriving communities? Or will we end up with a few at the top hoarding even more of our national wealth, while ever more people toil long hours just to survive, and growing numbers fall into homelessness and despair?
Here are some of the options available for working people and families hard hit by the fallout from the pandemic.
For people still working – Paid Sick Days
Most people who are still working will have access to at least two to four weeks of Paid Sick Days that will cover a wide variety of coronavirus-related concerns, from actual illness, to self-quarantine, and closure of a child’s school or child care. Washington State law and the City of Seattle guarantee most workers the right to earn at least an hour of sick leave for every 40 worked, paid at full usual pay. Employers may also “frontload” that leave and provide more extensive paid time off.
New emergency federal paid sick leave provides for 10 days of COVID-related sick leave for workers in companies with fewer than 500 employees, with some exceptions. This leave is in addition to any other leave the worker already has. Workers are entitled to full pay (up to $511 per day) if they need the leave for their own illness or self-quarantine, and two thirds pay for caring for someone else. The emergency federal leave will expire at the end of 2020. Employers will be reimbursed by the federal government for any emergency paid sick leave their employees take, or employers can use loans or grants to cover sick leave.
For people still working or who worked last year – Paid Family & Medical Leave
Washington’s Paid Family & Medical Leave (PFML) is available to almost anyone who worked at least 820 hours in the state in the past year. In addition to leave to care for a new child, it covers leave for a serious health condition of the worker or family member – including serious cases of COVID-19. PFML can extend for up to 12 weeks – and in some cases up to 18 weeks – with partial pay and is available by applying to the state program. Because of current high demand, applicants will likely face a delay of several weeks in having applications approved, but will receive payments retroactively to when their leave began.
In addition, new emergency federal paid family leave provides two weeks unpaid and up to 10 weeks partially paid leave for parents who cannot work because their child’s school or daycare has been closed. It is available to workers who have been with their employer at least 30 days, but like the emergency paid sick leave, only applies to workers in companies with fewer than 500 employees, and employers can request exemptions.
For people who have been laid off, furloughed, had their hours cut, or can’t find work – Unemployment Insurance
Washington State and Congress have both greatly expanded access to Unemployment Insurance (UI). It is now – or will soon be – available to almost anyone who has lost work or opportunity because of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic. People who worked part time, did gig work, or are working a reduced schedule can apply now. The latest action by Congress means that self-employed people will be able to apply soon, and benefits for everyone will be increased by $600 per week through July.
Falling through the cracks
This variety of existing and expanded programs will help hundreds of thousands of Washington households make it through this crisis. However, gaping holes remain. Washington’s paid sick days law doesn’t require businesses to provide sick leave to overtime-exempt employees, although Seattle’s does.
Washington’s paid family and medical leave program doesn’t guarantee workers in companies with fewer than 50 employees that they’ll get their jobs back. The program was already overwhelmed with an unexpectedly high number of applicants when it began providing benefits this January, even before the pandemic struck, so applicants currently face unacceptable delays in getting their benefits approved. The Employment Security Department has pledged a two-week turnaround time by the end of June, but a new spike in demand from the virus could imperil meeting that goal.
The new federal paid leave programs are temporary and leave millions of workers unprotected. Perhaps this crisis will finally spur Congress to get serious about passing universal paid leave standards for all U.S. workers.
Going forward, we also need to modernize unemployment insurance to recognize the fact that neither work nor workers look like they did back in the 1940s when the system was created. Many more workers now combine paid jobs and family caregiving, and jobs are structured in a greater variety of ways.
Hard times can bring out the best and the worst in us. Ultimately, we’ll all come out of this stronger if we pay attention to making sure we’re including everyone.
Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center focused on building an economy that works for everyone.