Seattle's convention center is laying dozens of people off. Tom Douglas, Seattle’s most famous celebrity chef, just shuttered his entire restaurant empire. Half of Washington state’s schools have closed for at least five weeks. This newspaper is begging for your loose change. And essentially every single major concert in America just got canceled.
The COVID-19 outbreak is about to hit America’s workers in a way we haven’t likely seen since the great recession of 2008. Is our safety net ready to keep all of these people on their feet?
Washington’s workers are in a better position to weather this storm than many other states—we’re one of the few places with mandatory paid sick leave and medical leave—but this is still America, so some of our workers will certainly fall through the system’s cracks, particularly people working in the informal gig economy, like Lyft or Uber drivers.
There could be some help for workers from the federal government if Congress and the president can agree on a deal to bail out America’s workers, although the Republican hope of passing a payroll tax cut would do almost nothing for workers who lose work during this crisis. We should have a good idea what federal help will come by next week.
Our state government is acting more quickly, with the governor and the Washington Employment Securities Department (ESD) adopting rules this week that expanded unemployment benefits to workers who need to self-quarantine or are temporarily laid off and expanded the state’s paid medical leave program. The ESD has set up a FAQ page specifically for COVID-19 questions and even made this helpful chart to figure out what kind of benefits you should apply for if you lose your job:
Do you know someone whose job is being impacted by #COVID19? Our friends over at @ESDwaWorks have tons of resources & a reference graphic to help. https://t.co/KAu4mYTl8u pic.twitter.com/q3dDzzCMbW
— WA Dept. of Health (@WADeptHealth) March 12, 2020
The three primary government programs for people who lose their jobs are the state’s mandatory paid sick leave, the state’s paid family and medical leave program, and the state’s unemployment insurance.
Many workers will likely turn to the state's new paid family and medical leave program, which provides up to 12 weeks of paid time off (at 90% of your wage up to $1,000 a week) for any person who has worked at least 16 hours a week during the previous year, provided you have a qualifying event (like having a baby or getting COVID-19). Unfortunately, it currently takes upwards of 10 weeks to have your application processed because ESD has seen a massive amount of interest in the program even before this COVID-19 outbreak, according to Nick Demerice, a spokesperson for ESD.
Demerice said ESD is actively hiring people to try to process the agency's applications faster.
"We’re one of the few places where you staff up when the economy goes bad," Demerice said. "So we are going to be hiring people."
Beyond just application delays, there's another glaring problem for all of the state's worker benefit programs: workers in the so-called gig economy, like Lyft drivers, are usually not designated as employees so many people who work full-time in the gig economy will not qualify for these benefits.
Demerice said people working in the gig economy who lose employment should still go through the process of applying for unemployment insurance to find out if they can get any benefits.
“It’s so highly individualized for everyone’s specific set of circumstances that it’s really important that people go in and go through the process of applying,” Demerice said.
Marc Cote, a lawyer in Seattle who practices employment law, said the state should expand unemployment to cover gig economy workers.
“I think it will pose a problem for people in the gig economy and that is an area where I hope our state and local government act quickly,” Cote said. “I think what the state could do is ensure that even people characterized as independent contractors could be eligible for unemployment during this crisis.”
Lisa Daugaard, the executive director of the Public Defender Association in Seattle, said giving unemployment assistance to gig economy workers will help keep the whole community safe by allowing people to quarantine if they need to.
“Explicit provisions for relief for independent contractors who are out of work while ill or in quarantine while recovering (or who have household members who have been ill) are essential, so that these contractors can afford to do the right thing and stay home when they should,” Daugaard said.
Daugaard said the state should also stop relying on employees using sick leave to stay home during a quarantine, because that creates an economic incentive for employees to break the quarantine rules out of fear that they are using too much of their own sick time.
“Whenever people lose something of value, they have an incentive to avoid the requested action, and in this case, it's not a benefit to them to stay home—it's a benefit to the whole community,” Daugaard said.