Work

Coronavirus Is Forcing Some to Choose Between Loved Ones' Safety and Work

Essential workers worry they might bring the disease home to their immunocompromised family members. Some are quitting out of fear.
13 April 2020, 9:00am
Immunocompromised loved ones.
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Until recently, Fred had served as a guest advocate at a Target in suburban Illinois, where he bagged items, brought pickup orders to customers' cars, and cleaned the shelves between his online classes at a community college. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, his duties had evolved in the past few weeks to include sanitizing the self-checkout stations after each purchase and informing patrons to stand at least six feet apart from one another.

Fred didn't mind. The job wasn't that bad, and he was putting away money that he wanted to eventually use to enroll in a four-year university, he said. But after his supervisor called him to say that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19 in the last week of March, Fred had to tell his boss that he wouldn't be able to come in any longer. While he is trying to save up to move out, Fred still lives with his parents, and his father is diabetic, which makes him susceptible to complications from the coronavirus.

"Target was fine with that decision," Fred said. "And I'm not the only person in shambles because of something like this."

Robert Blanton, a 62-year-old general surgeon in Bristol, Tennessee, is one of them. His wife has lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, conditions that also make contracting the coronavirus a greater threat. "A lot of people, and not just doctors, have the same fears," Blanton said.

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During the coronavirus crisis, many companies have expanded their paid sick leave policies to allow workers with COVID-19 symptoms or the immunocompromised to stay at home. But current policies largely do not consider the positions of people like Blanton and Fred, the latter of whom requested VICE only use his first name out of fear of reprisal.

Because of the highly contagious natures of the virus, which can be transmitted asymptomatically, perfectly healthy Americans around the country are less concerned about contracting the coronavirus themselves than they are of bringing it home from work to their immunocompromised loved ones, who face a higher risk of fatality if exposed.

But the modern American economy has barely accepted sick leave as a rational idea, and certainly has yet to get around to the notion of paid time off because you think you might make your grandma ill.

This dilemma is forcing people to make dangerous gambles, according to workers from various essential businesses who spoke to VICE. They can either continue to work and risk spreading the virus to sick roommates, parents, siblings, partners, or friends. Or they can stay in the house and not make the money they need in order to survive what is potentially the largest economic crisis in generations.

"I think more people are in this kind of predicament than we realize," Fred said. "So many people seem to be scaling back their hours. I expect a fair number of them are afraid of accidentally killing a person they love who is more at risk."

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on low- and middle-income workers, said the question of what people such as Blanton and Fred should do is being completely ignored.

"They're a totally forgotten group,” Gould said. "When you think about paid sick leave, you think about taking care of yourself, or taking care of someone else who is sick. But you never really think about preventing somebody from getting sick."

"So many people seem to be scaling back their hours. I expect a fair number of them are afraid of accidentally killing a person they love."

Exactly what should be done is a difficult question—one that employers have never before had to take into serious consideration. In response to the coronavirus epidemic, Target has waived its absenteeism policy, and is offering both confirmed illness pay and quarantine pay for up to 14 days if workers test positive for COVID-19 or have been ordered to self-isolate for two weeks. The corporation also currently permits employees who are 65 and older or pregnant to take 30 days of fully paid leave, but it does not address what to do if you happen to live with somebody who has a compromised immune system.

"Team members are encouraged to talk with their managers and discuss individual cases, with the possibility to be reassigned roles for the time being or to take paid family leave or a personal leave, if needed," said Jake Anderson, a spokesperson for Target.

Nevertheless, fears for immunocompromised loved ones has caused some to opt out of work entirely. An Uber and Lyft driver in New York City, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal, told VICE that he resides in a small apartment with his elderly relatives and hasn't driven in almost a month because he is afraid of unintentionally killing them.

Because of a decrease in demand on its ride-hailing platform, Uber announced on Monday that it would list additional job offers on a portal—like positions at McDonald's, FedEx, and PepsiCo—and further encouraged its drivers to sign up for Uber Eats, so that they could deliver food, a service that has seen a spike since shelter-in-place orders have gone into effect throughout the country.

But, for the driver, those opportunities seem even more dangerous than transporting passengers, even if it pays little at a moment when he desperately needs money.

"I'm running out of cash," he said. "And there literally aren't any safe options to solve that problem."

Much like Target's coronavirus policy, Uber's updated paid sick leave policy only covers what would occur should a driver come down with COVID-19 or need to self-quarantine, although a spokesperson for the company noted that New York City-based Uber drivers are able to accrue paid time off. Lyft has stated it would provide some financial assistance under the same logic.

A decade ago, Lenny Shelton and his girlfriend relocated to Los Angeles to try to pursue their dreams of being actors and comedians. Finally out West, they moved into a cramped apartment in North Hollywood.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Shelton had been supporting himself by running deliveries for DoorDash and Postmates. Then he suddenly had to quit. His partner has an autoimmune disease, he said, and she begged him not to leave the house, even though she is also unemployed and they could last barely a month on their savings.

A DoorDash spokesperson said in an email that the company would financially assist "dashers" who have COVID-19, have been forced to self-quarantine, or can prove they live with someone who has the virus. Postmates has made a fund for members of its "Fleet" to use for "health expenses such as co-pays and wellness products," which reportedly pays some drivers as little as $30 each.

But none of that helps Shelton, who has since applied for food stamps and unemployment. He is uncertain when any of that will kick in, too. Now, like so many others, all he can do is wait—for his $1,200 stimulus check and the next day he can work again without worrying about getting his partner sick.

"If I lived alone, I probably wouldn't have stopped," Shelton said. "You know, when I was by myself, I obviously only had one person to worry about."

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