Attempts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus are exposing a soft underbelly of the American economy: In our advanced industrialized nation, about 30 million people, or around a quarter of all workers, don’t get paid when they have to take time off work to nurse an illness. These are often the same workers with little to no financial cushion and minimal work-from-home flexibility, which means they’re likelier to stay on the job, accelerating the spread of a contagion.
Kudos to Mayor de Blasio and the City Council for writing paid sick leave into law here back in 2014. Enforcement has been spotty, but at least New York City requires employees with five or more workers to offer up to 40 hours of this baseline benefit.
In the thick of the public health crisis, the feds must now step up. If scrambling to structure a permanent system for workers across America is too heavy a lift, they can jigger a stopgap fix, sending state unemployment systems federal funds to reimburse employers who keep paying workers when doctors tell them to stay home.
President Trump says he wants to give targeted relief to hourly workers and to employees in specific suffering industries, like airlines and hotels (special federal aid to the fracking industry? hell no). Democrats have their own ideas, some of which overlap with his.
The key is quickly giving millions of potentially at-risk workers the chance to isolate themselves and wait it out without losing their livelihoods and exacerbating economic disruptions in the process. Act and act fast.
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