Avoiding Coronavirus May Be a Luxury Some Workers Can’t Afford

Stay home from work if you get sick. See a doctor. Use a separate bathroom from the people you live with. Prepare for schools to close, and to work from home. These are measures the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended to slow a coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

Yet these are much easier to do for certain people — in particular, high-earning professionals. Service industry workers, like those in restaurants, retail, child care and the gig economy, are much less likely to have paid sick days, the ability to work remotely or employer-provided health insurance.

The disparity could make the new coronavirus, which causes a respiratory illness known as Covid-19, harder to contain in the United States than in other rich countries that have universal benefits like health care and sick leave, experts say. A large segment of workers are not able to stay home, and many of them work in jobs that include high contact with other people. It could also mean that low-income workers are hit harder by the virus.

“Very quickly, it’s going to circulate a lot faster in the poorer communities than the wealthiest ones,” said Dr. James Hadler, Connecticut’s former state epidemiologist and now a consultant to the state. His work has found that influenza infections tend to strike low-income neighborhoods more aggressively than affluent ones, and that poor families are more likely to live in close quarters with others, and to share bathrooms.

Unequal access to precautionary measures cuts along the same lines that divide the United States in other ways: income, education and race.

“It’s definitely an equity issue,” said Alex Baptiste, policy counsel for workplace programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit advocacy group. “You have not just an economic disparity but also a racial disparity between who has that access and can take care of themselves and their families.”

Portia Green, 33, is a restaurant worker in New York. She has no paid sick leave or health insurance. If schools closed, as a single mother she’d have no child care. A day off work means losing around $100 in pay, she said, and if she had to take more than a few days off, losing her job. The restaurants she has worked for are too understaffed to call in backup workers easily, she said, and the expectation is that you show up unless you’re “green.”

“They’re going to push you to do it anyway,” said Ms. Green, who is a member of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United in New York, an advocacy group. “You go to work, pop a vitamin C and if you can do it, you do it.”

The biggest disparity for workers is access to health care: In the United States, some 27.5 million people lack any form of health insurance. That makes them less likely to seek medical care when they become ill or to have access to preventive health benefits that can help them stave off illness. The uninsured are disproportionately low income.