David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

The novel coronavirus has turned New York, the city that never sleeps, into a virtual ghost town of quiet streets, and vacant office buildings, dark Broadway theaters, deserted restaurants and idle sports venues.

The pain is being felt most by hourly workers and the working poor – line-cooks, nurse’s aides, grocery store clerks, nannies, and fast-food restaurant employees. They typically can’t do their jobs remotely. In New York City and nearby Westchester these workers at least have five paid sick days guaranteed by local laws. And New York City’s law, passed by the City Council in 2013 and expanded by Mayor de Blasio, allows that leave to be used if your place of business, child’s school or day care is closed because of a public health emergency.

But that won’t be enough for workers if they are quarantined for 14 days. Then they face an impossible choice if they suspect they are infected with the coronavirus: their health or their livelihood. Blue-collar workers and low-wage earners are also the ones most likely to be laid off because of the virus. They desperately need help.

This week, Governor Cuomo and New York State lawmakers are expected to pass two-part legislation which will ensure that most employees can keep their jobs and are compensated for time off should an individual be placed in mandatory or precautionary quarantine and unable to work from home. The second part would require employers statewide to provide paid sick leave starting January 2021. This new state policy will cover an estimated 1.3 million workers on Long Island and upstate who currently lack even a single paid sick day. If an employee’s place of business is closed due to COVID19, workers would be able to apply for Unemployment Insurance immediately without the usual waiting period.

At this writing there are more than 165,000 COVID-19 cases worldwide, with 3.774 in the US; 69 lives have been lost nationwide.

Establishing emergency measures and a statewide paid sick leave policy is the right thing to do to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak on low-wage families and marginalized communities. So is imposing a temporary statewide moratorium on evictions and closing housing courts to ensure that people don’t have to leave their homes as we respond to this pandemic. In addition, there’s a need to streamline eligibility and enrollment in various temporary cash assistance programs.

At the federal level, Congress is expected to approve a multi-billion-dollar stimulus package which includes temporary coronavirus-related paid sick leave, paid leave to care for sick family members, enhanced unemployment benefits and free coronavirus testing. Arguably the most important element of the aid package is two-week paid sick leave. However, the benefit only applies to businesses with fewer than 500 employees.

Large employers are excluded and any company with fewer than 50 employees can apply for an exemption, which may omit millions of workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to the BLS data, 59 million Americans work for companies with fewer than 500 or more workers and an estimated 6.5 million of them do not have any paid sick days. Another 12 million work with no sick days for companies with fewer than 50 employees.

Just a dozen states, the District of Columbia and several other different localities require some type of paid sick leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Along with (or instead of) regular paid sick leave, some private employers are already using other means of helping themselves and their workers get through the current COVID-19 crisis, such as offering ad hoc, temporary sick leave or, when feasible, allowing or requiring people to work remotely.

Overall, according to BLS data, one in four U.S. workers – more than 32 million – have no paid sick days. Some American workers don’t even have the option to take unpaid sick leave: they must clock in or forfeit their paycheck and possibly their positions. Even so, right-wing conservatives argue that paid sick leave is poorly suited to the COVID-19 crisis. They argue that paid leave raises consumer prices and decreases employee pay and benefits. They claim that layoffs or reduced hours at work were caused by passage of the New York City’s paid sick leave mandate. But solid research has found that was not the case.

Of course, the naysayers had to abandon their long-standing resistance in the face of a national medical emergency and growing concerns that workers who cannot afford to stay home will accelerate the spread of the virus.

Not since 9/11, Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy have New Yorkers experienced this level of crisis. The National Guard has been deployed in Westchester County and Gov. Cuomo is calling for the U.S. military to be deployed to help build temporary hospital wards.

Extraordinary times require extraordinary action. It’s gratifying to see New York’s leaders step up, and take measures to protect people of low-income communities from the outsized impact caused by COVID-19.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.