With lockdowns lifted and employers reopening businesses, many Americans who are the most vulnerable to developing a serious case from the coronavirus may not be able to afford to stay away from work. Most won’t earn extra for that risk, either.
Almost 1 in 4 workers, or 38 million Americans, are at higher risk of severe cases from COVID-19 due to underlying conditions or age, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on national health issues.
This could also lead to indirect exposure for an additional 12 million at-risk adults who are not workers themselves, but live with at least one full-time worker.
“It’s a big number,” said Gary Claxton, senior vice president of Kaiser Family Foundation “Safety is going to be an issue as they commute to work, as they are in workplaces where there's other people, and even more, if they're in a job where they're facing the public.”
Workers at high risk are considered those who have diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, body mass index (BMI) above 40, moderate to severe asthma, functional limitation due to cancer as well as workers 65 and older, according to the report.
‘Meaningful part of their family's income’
Many of those workers at high risk tend to have lower-paying jobs that account for the majority of their family’s income. At-risk workers between the ages of 18 and 64 earn $48,400 on average, which is less than those who are not at risk who bring in an average of $51,900, the report found.
“What they are earning from their jobs is a meaningful part of their family's income,” Claxton said. “It wouldn't be easy for those families if those people stay home safe and couldn't return to their jobs.”
The earnings of at-risk workers under 65 account for more than half of their family’s income, which makes the choice of whether to return to work more difficult, according to Claxton.
‘An imminent danger of returning to work’
Workers at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 may be accommodated in some cases, but many would generally have to return to work or otherwise lose their unemployment benefits.
“If returning to work or commuting to work could endanger them, then they may be protected under the disability laws,” said Daniel Feinstein, a labor and employment lawyer at Davis & Gilbert LLP. “If an employer lets them go for not returning to work, they could have legal exposure.”
Guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says employers must find ways to mitigate the risk for people with underlying conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The Occupational Safety and Health Act, or OSH Act, allows workers to refuse work if there’s an imminent danger or your employer is not taking responsible steps to ensure a safe working environment.
Read more: How to file for unemployment insurance
“Generally speaking, if the employer requires you to return to work, you must return to work,” Feinstein said, “unless you could show that there's an imminent danger of returning to work.”
Hazard pay is ‘nowhere near the extent of risk’
Many of those vulnerable workers remained on the job through the peak of the pandemics, but they rarely received additional pay for the high level of risk they faced.
Fewer than 1 in 3 of the workers who worked outside their homes during the pandemic received extra hazard pay, according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute. At the same time, more than half of workers who are currently employed outside of their homes are concerned about bringing coronavirus home, the report found.
“There are people receiving hazard pay, but it’s nowhere near the extent of risk,” said Lawrence Mishel, a fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. “The gaps are even larger for people who have less bargaining power in the labor market which tend to be lower- and middle-wage workers and workers of color — black and Hispanic.”
Seven in 10 black workers who work outside of their home are fearful, but only 4 of 10 have received some form of hazard pay to work during those riskier times.
“It’s those who have the least power in the labor market that face the most risk,” Mishel said, “and aren’t necessarily getting hazard pay.”