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COVID-19

Laid-off workers now worry about health care during health crisis

Meghan McCarty Carino Mar 25, 2020
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One employer said he "just wanted to make sure that everybody’s taken care of through this." Mario Tama/Getty Images
COVID-19

Laid-off workers now worry about health care during health crisis

Meghan McCarty Carino Mar 25, 2020
One employer said he "just wanted to make sure that everybody’s taken care of through this." Mario Tama/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

One week ago, Sonya Znati was laid off from her job as lead bartender at the Maialino Mare restaurant in Washington, D.C. She’s been scrambling to apply for unemployment benefits and figure out how she’ll pay the rent. She’s also losing her health insurance soon, “which is probably the scariest part of it for me because we’re going into a pandemic,” Znati said.

She expects to get insurance on the health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act, but in the past that’s cost her $400 a month for a plan with a $4,000 deductible. She hasn’t figured out whether she’ll qualify for Medicaid, which varies from state to state. But for now, COBRA is just too expensive.

“It’s terrifying,” she said, contemplating what a hospitalization could cost her. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this scared about my financial situation before.”

At least Znati’s employer, Union Square Hospitality Group, agreed to pay insurance premiums for a few weeks after she was laid off.

Asher Schofield is doing the same for five former employees of his shuttered gift shop, Frog and Toad in Providence, Rhode Island.

“Not being covered at a time like this is very scary,” he said. “We just wanted to make sure that everybody’s taken care of through this.”

Schofield is funding the benefit through online sales, but he’s not sure how long he can keep it up and he has had to let go several part-time workers who didn’t get health care benefits.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, more than 27 million people in the United States had no insurance, according to the census data from 2018. That includes many part-time, freelance and gig workers who don’t get health care or other benefits, like paid sick leave, through an employer but might not qualify for public assistance.

New York University business professor Arun Sundararajan said the reliance on traditional full-time employers to deliver safety-net benefits for workers had been breaking down long before the current crisis.

“What is transpiring now is underscoring the critical need for us to refashion the social safety net,” he said.

He hopes the recent moves to extend paid sick leave, family leave and unemployment benefits to workers who didn’t qualify before the pandemic will be a first step to permanently providing benefits to all workers, not just traditional full-time employees.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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