The current public health consensus in the U.S. to slow the spread of COVID-19 by self-isolating and social distancing has led a number of retailers to close stores, while states curtail public places. For businesses temporarily closing stores or limiting hours, it raises more questions on how their employees will be paid for those lost work hours.
A number of retailers, including Urban Outfitters and Patagonia which have temporarily closed stores said they would continue to pay employees. States to take action against public gathering include New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, where movie theaters, gyms and casinos will be closed and gatherings will be limited to 50 people or less. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a conference call that the directive targets non-essential businesses, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the restrictions would stay in place as long as needed.
“Our primary goal is to slow the spread of #Coronavirus so that the wave doesn’t crash our healthcare system,” Governor Cuomo wrote in a Twitter thread Monday. “Social distancing is the best way to do that.”
In the absence of existing comprehensive pay protections at the federal level, much less those that address the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are generally left to look for support from their employers, or state laws in some jurisdictions, labor law experts said.
Some eight states, including New York, California, and Washington, D.C., provide some family and medical leave that could potentially be invoked in cases of mandatory closings or quarantines.
“This situation is unprecedented, and mass closures of this nature is not something we have pre-planned financial backing to deal with,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at the consumer advocacy non-profit Public Citizen.
Some of the largest retailers, including Target, Walmart and Macy’s have adjusted their sick leave policies to ensure their workers receive paid sick leave if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 or subject to mandatory quarantines, but there are questions about the feasibility of testing, especially as the number of those sickened by the illness spikes.
“I think a huge population [of workers] that will be grappling with this problem are those that are not sick, or whose places of employment are temporarily closed,” Gilbert said.
“And those that do not, are working on getting them in place,” an NRF representative said. “Retailers are evaluating options to provide temporary emergency leave and work from home during situations of quarantine.”
This week, the Senate may consider a series of legislation geared toward addressing the fallout of the outbreak, including a sick leave measure that passed the House on Saturday to provide paid sick leave and family and medical leave under some circumstance to employees of companies with fewer than 500 employees.
On Monday, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah articulated the need to go further, and issued proposals including a $1,000 payment to each American adult during the crisis, echoing the sort of universal basic income policy that former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang had argued for.
“It’s speaking to the need that’s pretty immediate for workers,” said Pamela Loprest, senior fellow at the policy research think tank Urban Institute.
“It’s important for the policies and measures we pass to help mitigate the situation to match the needs of low wage workers and their families in their real life,” she said.