SF Chronicle: Coronavirus will hit low-wage workers hardest

Lenore Estrada has seen orders plunge at her Three Babes Bakeshop, which caters to San Francisco tech companies whose workers are now telecommuting.

With diners staying home, James Cox is making about $100 less in tips a night for her job as lead server at the Copper Spoon restaurant in Oakland.

Nancy Harvey, who runs Lil Nancy’s Primary Schoolhouse in Oakland, doesn’t know how she will survive if home quarantine or illness prevents children from coming to day care.

“We’re all living close to the edge,” Harvey said. “I would be up a creek financially because I would not be able to pay my staff.”

As the coronavirus crisis evolves, it disproportionately affects lower-wage workers, exacerbating the inequalities between haves and have-nots.

Cashiers, cooks, waiters, janitors, cabbies, ride-hail drivers, health aides, day care workers and others often live paycheck to paycheck. They cannot work remotely, cannot afford any loss of income, and often have minimal, if any, paid sick leave.

But now there is less need for their services as many people work remotely, tourists and business travelers stay home, and public events get canceled. Service workers’ financial hardships could be even more dire if home quarantines get imposed.

“All low-wage workers are one paycheck away from a cascade of disasters,” said Laura Padin, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

Service workers, who account for more than 85% of the workforce nationwide, generally interact with the public all day long, increasing their risk for contracting or transmitting the virus.

“Their work requires substantial direct contact with others,” Padin said. “The risks are not just to the low-wage workers and families, but to the broader public.”

“Their vulnerability spreads the crisis, and the crisis increases the vulnerability,” said Saru Jayaraman, director of the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center. “On the brink of a global pandemic, we don’t want workers forced to work when sick because they don’t have any other choice.”

Padin, Jayaraman and other advocates are urging Congress and states to protect workers during the public health emergency by mandating paid sick leave, covering lost wages for quarantined people or those caring for children if schools are closed, raising unemployment insurance, providing subsidies for small businesses, and increasing wages, especially for restaurant workers, whose jobs handling food make it imperative that they not work while ill.

The $8.3 billion in emergency funding Congress passed this week omitted any provision for mandatory paid sick leave, although some 30 million workers in the country lack it. Opposition from business groups has blocked paid-leave laws in some states and cities. There is no federal mandate for paid sick leave.

Providing leave wouldn’t just benefit individual workers, but would boost public health, said Rebecca Givan, associate professor of management and labor relations at Rutgers University.

“If lower-wage workers have to decide whether they can afford to take unpaid time off, that puts everybody at risk,” she said. “The service workers on whom everyone depends need the ability to make choices that benefit the public health — staying home from work if they’re sick.”

Studies underscore the public health benefits of mandatory paid sick leave, which San Francisco pioneered in 2007, followed by several other cities and states. California enacted paid sick leave in 2015, but requires employers to offer only three days a year.

A 2018 study found that requiring sick leave caused substantial decreases in flu rates. Conversely, a 2010 study of the 2009 swine flu pandemic found that people who went to work when sick — presumably because they lacked paid leave — contributed to 7 million infections.

“We strongly believe that whatever monies Congress allocates towards virus response must take into account workers’ time and include paid sick leave,” said a statement from Unite Here Local 2, which represents 14,000 airport, hotel and food service workers in San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

Many of the union’s members who work in travel and tourism are already feeling the cutbacks.

Hotels are experiencing significant cancellations across the board — from tourists, business travelers and conference goers, said Kevin Carroll, executive director of the Hotel Council of San Francisco.

“When hotels are not as filled, they flex their workers’ schedules,” he said. Housekeepers, waiters, bellhops, cooks, prep cooks and front-desk workers all have their hours reduced.

That’s happened to Xing Tam of San Francisco, who counted himself lucky to have two jobs — as a hotel banquet steward and a preschool custodian. But now his hotel hours are being cut, so he’s seeking a third job.

His living situation underscores the city’s housing crunch. Tam lives with more than a dozen relatives, ranging in age from his 5-year-old niece to his 90-year-old grandmother.

“I’m worried, because if someone in the home gets the coronavirus, that could impact the whole family,” he said in Cantonese through a translator. “There’s not a whole lot we can do.”

In fact, overcrowded housing presents another precarious situation for lower-income people, said Ken Jacobs, director of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

Maurilia Arellanes, 49, of San Jose, who has worked at McDonald’s for 22 years, is scared about having her hours cut if there is a home quarantine.

“It really worries me,” she said in Spanish through a translator. “I won’t be able to pay my rent; I won’t be able to support myself.”

A 2018 Federal Reserve study showed that 40% of Americans have less than $400 in reserve. Arellanes, with about $150 in savings, couldn’t cover her $750 monthly room rental, nor the money she scrapes together to send her mother in Mexico.

She’s also fearful about getting sick. She said her managers discourage workers from calling in sick and retaliate by cutting their future work hours. If she were out for the recommended 14-day quarantine, “it would be terrible,” she said. “I would get fired if I missed work that long.”

McDonald’s said that it is “continuously evaluating our policies to provide flexibility and reasonable accommodations,” that it expects sick employees to stay home and that it has a non-retaliation policy.

Gig workers, who lack the protections of employment, are in particularly tough spots. If their work dries up, they cannot get unemployment coverage, for instance. Sen. Mark Warner, D.-Va., on Friday wrote to the CEOs of Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Grubhub, DoorDash and Instacart — all except Grubhub are based in San Francisco — asking them to address the financial burden for drivers who become ill or choose to self-quarantine.

Uber said that it would pay drivers or couriers diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined by public health officials for up to 14 days. “This has already begun in some markets and we are working to implement mechanisms to do this worldwide,” said Andrew Macdonald, a senior vice president.

Several other companies released statements saying they are working to protect their workers’ well-being.

“This really highlights the importance of AB5 for workers’ access to important benefits that come through the employment relationship,” said UC Berkeley’s Jacobs, a vocal advocate for California’s new gig-work law.

Some movements are afoot to support lower-income people through the virus outbreak. California joined other states Thursday in ordering insurers to waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus testing.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is backing an ordinance to prevent evictions of tenants who lose wages due to the virus outbreak. The California Apartment Association said Friday that it urges landlords to be “mindful of their tenants who are suffering as a result of the virus” and called on banks, utilities and others to do likewise.

The Unite Here union said it’s talking to employers about covering lost wages for hourly workers. Several tech companies, whose white-collar workers can easily telecommute, are offering to support hourly workers during the crisis. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Microsoft said they will pay hourly and contract workers at their offices, such as janitors, food service and security guards, regular wages even if their hours are cut.

But small businesses that lack corporate deep pockets cannot pay their workers when their revenue is slashed. At Three Babes Bakeshop, March 14 — Pi Day — is usually the biggest holiday of the year after Thanksgiving, said Estrada. Math-loving tech companies buy some 3,000 pies (even when it falls on a weekend, as it does this year, they celebrate it before or after, she said).

She hired more people and stocked up on apples, blackberries, pecans and other ingredients— but has orders for only 550 pies, since most of her customers’ offices are almost empty. She’s had to drastically pare workers’ hours.

“It’s super tough,” she said. “I’m feeling frightened, honestly.” Zoe Williams, who works at Three Babes, said she’s concerned as someone living paycheck to paycheck. “If I don’t have the hours I need, I can’t pay my rent,” she said. “I don’t think I was conscious of how reliant the service industry is on tech companies.”

Other types of small businesses are worried as well.

Harvey, who owns Lil Nancy’s, the Oakland day care, made an impassioned plea for her industry.

Workers at California child care centers that, like hers, served subsidized families, recently won the right to unionize and she’s hopeful that will lead to more support.

“Child care providers keep not only California working but the entire nation,” she said. “When parents don’t have child care, they can’t go to work. As we put together a plan for America, make sure the funding includes us. We don’t deserve to be treated as second-class citizens when we ourselves are holding up all the other families.”

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: csaid@sfchronicle.com ; Twitter: @csaid

Link to article: https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/Coronavirus-widens-inequality-gap-for-low-wage-15113943.php