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.