The Coronavirus Pandemic Highlights Need for Labor Reform

The novel coronavirus outbreak, in a few short months, has had a devastating effect on the national economy. Thousands of employees in key sectors have seen a drastic decrease in their work hours; some have lost their jobs altogether. With a shockingly low number of supports available to these workers amongst this time of crisis, the gross inadequacies of the U.S. labor law are being brought to the spotlight.


Which industries are being affected most by the outbreak?


There are very few industries that are not being affected by the outbreak. Some of the hardest-hit industries include those that are on the frontlines of the rapidly declining rates of travel, which includes travel, hospitality, and service sectors.


The majority of airline employees, such as flight attendants, customer service representatives, and flight technicians, have begun to experience layoffs or reductions in work hours amidst drastic declines in flight bookings, which is believed to exceed 50%. While some airline companies are choosing to reduce work hours for their employees, many of these employees are paid by the hour and as such, rely on working a sufficient number of hours. Worse still, a small number of airline companies have implemented temporary lay-offs. It is worth noting that not the employees with reduced work hours, nor those who have lost their jobs, will be offered additional compensation.


Amidst declining rates of travel, major cruise lines have suspended all departures from U.S. ports for at least the remainder of the month, effectively putting thousands of employees out of work. Hotel chains across the nation have also turned to reductions in work hours and temporary layoffs to deal with declining room bookings. As a result of the aforementioned, travel and tourism agencies are undergoing major downsizing, as well.


Ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft are being affected by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus outbreak, as well. As drivers transports dozens of clients daily, they are at increased risk of contracting the virus. Many have decided not to put themselves at risk and to work less hours, effectively slashing their pay. On the other hand, there has been a decreased demand for transportation as more people choose to stay home. Drivers are feeling the severe financial consequences of reduced work hours and are even racking up their expenses amidst increased need for vehicle cleaning and disinfection.


Lastly, the restaurants are seeing unprecedented lack of patronage, and in some cases, are being forced to shut down operations altogether. As a result, tipped and hourly workers are working much less, while some have even lost their jobs.


It is worth noting that the above industries disproportionately employ racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and those of limited financial means. For example, restaurants in major metropolitan areas employ undocumented immigrants as over 10% of their total workforce.


In general, the populations employed by the above sectors have less savings and other resources that can act as a safety net in the case of illness, emergency, or a nation-wide economic depression. While there are few protections for the well-off under the labor law, they are virtually non-existent for the socially and economically disadvantaged of our economy.


What are some of the inadequacies in the labor law?


#1. Employers are Not Required to Offer Paid Sick Leave.


While many companies do, in fact, offer paid sick leave to employees, they are not required by the law to do so. Furthermore, paid sick leave is a luxury often known to full-time, salaried employees. The vast majority of hourly wage-earners will not be paid for work missed due to illness, and in some scenarios, may even lose their jobs over missed work.


Amidst the novel coronavirus outbreak, the harsh reality is that a significant number of individuals will not be able to miss work – even if they suspect themselves or their co-workers to be experiencing symptoms of the virus.


#2. Many Emloyers are Not Required to Offer Health Insurance.


Many employees rely on their employer for health insurance. Amidst the novel coronavirus outbreak, certain lucky employees can use work-sponsored health insurance for virus screenings and treatment. However, many hourly wage-earners are not offered health insurance by their employer, and as such, must face the novel coronavirus outbreak uninsured. The options for these workers are either to pay full medical costs out of pocket – which is prohibitively expensive, with the average physician office visit costing at least $200 – or to wait for their illness to reach levels so grave as to warrant a trip to the emergency room, where hospitals are required by law to provide treatment to all. In the case of the latter, the individual will still be responsible for the cost of treatment.




#3. Employers are Not Required to Offer Flexible Work Options.


A rigid work schedule makes sense only for a small number of industries. For the remainder of employees, a flexible work schedule may be an invaluable tool for increasing productivity, health outcomes, and job satisfaction. Similar effects can also result from offering employees opportunities to work remotely. On the other hand, unreasonable rigidity can interfere with an employee’s ability to balance work and non-work responsibilities.


Amidst the novel coronavirus outbreak, many employees report not being able to seek timely health care services due to work scheduling conflicts. And those who can reasonably conduct their work remotely, but are not given the option to do so by employers, are facing unnecessary exposure during their commutes and interactions with others in the workplace.


#4. Unemployment Insurance Does Not Cover Basic Living Expenses.


Employees that have been laid off, due to the coronavirus or otherwise, can collect unemployment insurance through their state’s labor department. However, the maximum that is awarded is several hundred dollars per week, with the exact amount depending on the state in which it is issued. Currently, the state of Hawaii offers $648 per week, which is the maximum amount awarded in the nation. Major cities with high costs of living offer less, with New York paying $504 and California paying $450 per week. For many employees affected by layoffs, especially those with families to take care of, this is not a realistic option.


Has the government made any changes to the law in light of the novel coronavirus outbreak?


As per the recently-introduced coronavirus relief bill, certain protections will be offered to workers affected by the outbreak. While the bill is comprehensive, the provisions most relevant to workers are as follows:


  1. Free testing for the novel coronavirus will be offered to everyone believed to be infected.


  1. Workers believed to be infected with the novel coronavirus will be offered two weeks of paid sick leave.


  1. The one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance benefits will be waived for those laid off due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.


It took the U.S. government something as grave as a viral pandemic and national economic crash to implement these basic protections for employees. However, even they are grossly insufficient for addressing the situations of thousands of workers in the tourism, hospitality, and service industries. Furthermore, despite their accomplishments, these temporary laws are simply a suspension of the reality that the aforementioned workers live on a daily basis. What will happen when the next outbreak occurs? What happens when illness occurs on an individual level?


The only adequate solution is to permanently require paid sick leave, health insurance, and sensible work options to all employees.


Can employees get fired due to the novel coronavirus outbreak?


Since most employees in the U.S. are employees-at-will, they can be legally fired for any reason. As such, under the federal law, it is permissible for your employer to fire you due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. However, some employers may provide their employees with a contract, which is often presented in the form of an employee handbook. If the contract addresses topics related to contagious illness, they may serve as rules which the employer cannot violate. For example, if the contract states that the employee is entitled to a certain number of absences due to a contagious illness, then the employer may not be legally permitted to fire an employee due to absences caused by such an illness.


If your employment has been terminated because you missed work due to a contagious illness, you may have a legal claim against your employer. Likewise, if you are an employer, you may find yourself facing legal action on behalf of a terminated employee.


The offices of Jason Flores-Williams can help you to address issues related to termination due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. We can answer your questions and act as your legal representation in a case based on termination due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.