Coronavirus highlights lack of safety net for gig workers

Michelle Goitia usually has 25 mothers and babies in her postnatal yoga class. This week, only four turned up at the studio where she teaches in Brooklyn, New York, as fears about the growing coronavirus pandemic continue to spread across the United States.

New York state has more than 200 confirmed coronavirus cases so far and the governor has declared a state of emergency, which means Goitia expects attendance will continue to plummet – along with her pay.

“I am a teacher at a studio that pays me based on attendance: the more people, the more money I make,” Goitia told Al Jazeera. “I am a private contractor, so if I do not teach or work, I do not get paid.”

Goitia has taught yoga, worked as a doula, led birth workshops and anchored new mother support groups for the past 15 years. That the population she works with is extra vulnerable to illness makes a pandemic like this even harder on her financially.

“My client base is pregnant women, and women that bring their young babies to my class, so I have to be extremely careful to not get them sick as well,” she said.

Across the gig economy, independent contractors such as Goitia are bracing themselves for a drastic drop in income. Ride-share drivers, nannies and carers for the elderly, freelancers, house cleaners, fitness instructors and delivery people are among those who could feel the pinch as their customer base dwindles.

Working ‘close to the line’
Some 36 percent of Americans participate in the gig economy in some way, according to a 2018 Gallup poll and while those gigs offer flexibility, they also have virtually no safety net, says Erin Hatton, an associate professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Now, the widening coronavirus outbreak has shed new light on just how vulnerable workers in this sector are.

“Many of these workers are working very close to the line, they need the hours because they’re low-wage workers and they don’t get paid sick leave,” Hatton told Al Jazeera. “Many of them are also frontline service providers, so that they interact with a lot of people, which means they are potentially exposed and put in a vulnerable position and then also they can expose others.”

Democratic lawmakers in Washington, DC have called for relief in the form of paid sick leave, enhanced unemployment insurance, food assistance and affordable coronavirus testing and treatment for American workers.

And ride-sharing corporations Uber and Lyft, as well as delivery services DoorDash, Postmates and Instacart, are reportedly discussing ways of setting up a fund to help drivers affected by the coronavirus. At least two ride-share drivers have tested positive for the virus in New York.

Faced with the prospect of being unable to afford medical care or health insurance and a decline in business, many independent contractors are worried about the financial repercussions.

“The majority of workers in America just don’t have that cushion to go without pay,” Hatton said. “So this provides a really bad incentive during this crisis to continue to work at all costs.”

‘Can’t afford to miss work’
Public health experts say it is crucial for those experiencing any symptoms to stay home and get tested but that is easier said than done when 27.9 million Americans do not have health insurance, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

Out-of-pocket medical costs can become an enormous burden for independent contractors as well. The average three-day hospital stay in the US costs about $30,000, according to HealthCare.gov.

But they are equally affected if they miss work. While 94 percent of company managers had paid sick leave in 2019, just 58 percent of service workers had it, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And only about 4 percent of workers have more than 14 paid sick days per year, the period for which people exposed to the coronavirus are asked to self-quarantine, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

In an address to the nation on Wednesday night, President Donald Trump announced his plan to defer payments on federal loans to small businesses and defer taxes for businesses hit by the virus. Trump has also said he would propose some sort of relief for hourly workers amid the coronavirus outbreak but has yet to put forth a detailed plan.

“The state and the federal governments should provide significant incentives to businesses to provide paid sick leave for all workers, so that anyone who has been exposed to the virus cannot go to work and be OK,” Hatton said.

“This is a point where they could step in and provide this basic social safety net to everyone right now. Because I think it will be absolutely crucial to contain the virus.”

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