Ever since the coronavirus began spreading in her home state of Washington, Azia Jenkins has spent hours cleaning her workplace: a 2017 Jeep Patriot. Jenkins, who escorts children for supervised visits on behalf of Child Protective Services, fears that her vehicle is becoming a petri dish, putting herself, the children she supervises, and her own two daughters at risk. Her new cleansing ritual, which she performs before and after dropping off any children, involves wiping down the compact SUV’s handles, seats, and steering wheel with Clorox wipes. She’s also trying to teach her children how important it is to wash their hands as much as they can.
Public health experts are recommending that companies encourage employees to work from home to prevent the potentially deadly coronavirus from spreading around offices, public transit and elsewhere. Many firms, like Apple, Microsoft and Google, are following that advice. But remote work isn’t an option for people like Jenkins, who, like millions of other Americans in fields like retail, dining and other industries, can’t simply log on to software like Outlook, Slack or Google Hangouts to do her job.
“Either I stay home, and I miss out on money, or I continue to work and I get sicker and sicker or I get other people sick,” says Jenkins, 26.
For all the promise of high-speed Internet and other innovations that can make it possible for us to work from anywhere, only about 29% of American employees actually did their jobs remotely as of 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those who work remotely tend to be both better-educated and wealthier. Among workers ages 25 and older, 47% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher worked from home sometimes, according to BLS data, compared to just 3% of workers with only a high school diploma. Of course, some highly educated workers, like medical professionals, also typically have to show up in person for work.
Alex Baptiste, policy counsel for the nonprofit National Partnership for Women and Families, says the remote work gap is just one way the coronavirus outbreak is underscoring inequalities inherent in the American economy. “On the one hand, you want people to have the best benefits that they possibly can, and when you see that kind of progress, we’re excited about it,” Baptiste says. “But it definitely is showing how wide the gap is between who have it and people who don’t.”
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Like Jenkins, Rachel Gorham, 37, also needs to be physically present for her job. But Gorham, a nanny in the Seattle area, isn’t certain that she will be asked to work through the outbreak now that her clients, who work in the tech industry, are working remotely. However, she feels more financially secure because her contract includes a provision called “guaranteed hours,” which means that she’s paid as long as she’s available to work, even if her clients don’t need her. Like more than half of all Americans, Gorham lives paycheck to paycheck. “It would take me about a week and a half to not be able to pay any of my bills,” she says.
Lydia, a 22-year-old bartender in New York City — where the coronavirus is also spreading — says she’s worried about being exposed at work, where she estimates she interacts with 500 to 600 people on busy nights. However, she doubts that the restaurant where she works will close in the face of an outbreak. She says she’ll likely have to keep working not only to make ends meet, but to show her managers that she takes her job seriously.
“The underlying tone with the managers is, ‘if you can’t do this job, I can find someone else who can,'” says Lydia, who asked we use only her first name for fear of employer retribution. “There isn’t a lot of job security in this industry, and illness just makes it 10 times worse.”
Indeed, must-show workers in fields like restaurants and retail, whose schedules tend to be set by their managers, often face pressure from bosses or even colleagues to keep working despite health concerns, says Ellen Kossek, a professor at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management. “Part of the problem for people with unpredictable schedules is they’re forced to also take whatever hours the employer gives them,” she says. “If you’re viewed as someone that’s unreliable, needs to take off for a chronic health condition, a kid with asthma, or a kid that gets sick, you’re then less likely to get more hours in the future.”
Compounding the problem is that people in must-show kinds of fields often lack access to benefits like paid sick leave that could keep them from coming to work and potentially spreading an illness to customers and colleagues, says Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “If you get the coronavirus and are quarantined, we’re talking about two weeks, we’re not talking about five days,” Appelbaum says. “And for that, we would have to have paid family and medical leave. And we know how rare that is — only about 20% of all workers have it.”
Jenkins, the Seattle CPS worker, argues that denying some workers sick days puts everyone in the community at risk — especially with those who can’t work from home. “We’re all human. We all get sick,” she says. “So for them not to have to give us that option, is kind of unfair. It’s like we’re expected to be superheroes who never get sick, or who never need time off. It’s crazy how some employers don’t offer that, or you have to earn it. What are we supposed to do?”
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