Alma Quiroz is a housekeeper at the Edgewater Hotel in Seattle, one of the country's biggest hotspots for COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus. Her work schedule has recently been cut from 40 hours per week to just eight hours. With a reduced schedule comes the threat that she will also lose health insurance benefits from working at least 80 hours each month.
“I’m worried if my son gets sick,” she said. “We automatically lose our health insurance because I’m not getting enough hours to be eligible. It’s very difficult not working enough hours, worrying how I’m going to pay rent. I can get scheduled and they will call the day before to let me know they don’t have enough rooms to clean, so I have to stay home with no pay. I’m worried about affording food to provide for my family.”
As the virus spreads rapidly and invisibly across the U.S., low-wage workers and those in the service industry like Quiroz will be hit extra hard. Most are unable to work from home, many can't afford to take time off for childcare if schools close, and paid time off of any sort remains a rarity for them in many parts of the U.S. But hourly workers have another challenge: If they get laid off or have their hours cut in a coronavirus-related economic downturn, they could lose their employer-provided health insurance and, in a bitter bit of irony, become even more vulnerable to the outbreak.
Jeremiah Saldate, a banquet server at the Edgewater for 13 years, had his shifts cut from four or five a week to one per week.
“My health insurance I’m able to get from work, I won’t have it for the foreseeable future because I need at least 80 hours a month to be eligible,” said Saldate. He recently signed up for unemployment benefits, but those don’t make up for the wages he’s losing. “I have two daughters, and losing health insurance for them is the scariest part. We’re hoping the hotel would extend further sick coverage, or give us health insurance through these times. People are going to still come to work sick because they need those diminished hours even more.”
The Edgewater declined to comment on this story.
The hospitality industry is among those hardest hit by the second-order effects of the pandemic, as people decide to cancel trips and refrain from attending large gatherings or even leaving the house except when necessary. Airline employees are afraid for their jobs, and coronavirus-related layoffs have already hit places as diverse as a bakery and the Port of Los Angeles
Low-wage workers are among those who need paid sick days and health insurance coverage the most, as these workers primarily work in industries with significant exposure to the public, but only 30 percent of low-wage workers in the leisure and hospitality industries don’t have access to any paid sick leave. Democrats in Congress this week announced legislation to provide paid sick leave, but that measure seemed to stall thanks to Republican opposition.
“What we’re seeing here is a reduced demand for things in the service sector, particularly in jobs where you have a lot of contact with the public,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “Those kinds of industries are going to see cuts in demand, so employers are going to be reducing workers’ hours and maybe cutting workers altogether. That is going to be a problem for many of these workers. Not only do they not have paid sick days if they get sick, but now their hours may be cut, they may be losing their health benefits, and not be able to make ends meet economically otherwise.”
Nicolasa Huerta was among the 145 unionized Teamsters truck drivers with Shippers Transport Express in Los Angeles who were laid off on February 27 due to a coronavirus-caused slowdown in work.
“We have to go on unemployment now and that’s only half our pay,” said Huerta, whose husband, also a truck driver, was similarly laid off. “There are so many warehouse workers, drivers, their work is so slow right now, and many are getting laid off.”
According to the Teamsters, Huerta and other laid off employees lose their health insurance coverage with the layoff, as they need to work 100 hours per month to remain eligible.
Many truck drivers at the Port of Los Angeles are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits because they are classified as independent contractors. That's the case for Josua Alvarez, a truck driver who is struggling to make ends meet and has no health insurance coverage.
“The work has disappeared since the coronavirus started,” said Alvarez. “Even if I work or not, I still have to pay the insurance for the truck and the fee for the plates. Those fees are deducted from my check every week. I have to make at least $300 a week to cover those deductions, and after that is what I make. But right now I’m transporting an empty container a day, so I barely make it to $300 to cover the deductions.”
Randy Williams, who has been a truck driver at the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach since 2007, explained he’s never seen work dry up as much as it has during the pandemic.
“Every year from the end of January to the beginning of March, it slows down due to the Chinese New Year. Now you add the coronavirus, things have come to a complete stop,” said Williams. “I’ve been off for 12 days straight. My company is a seven-day operation. We might have work next week, but after that, nobody knows.”
Williams has been relying on savings meant to purchase a house with his wife, and is also concerned about losing health insurance.
“We have to put in 99 hours for our medical per month,” he said. “If we don’t get 99 hours in March, we won’t have medical coverage in April. If we don’t have medical in April, if we get the virus, then what? It’s horrible.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Michael Sainato on Twitter.