As panic over COVID-19 heightens, only 29% of US workers have the ability to work remotely, according to Labor data.
As fatalities for COVID-19 continue to rise—the World Health Organization says the death rate is now 3.4%—workers and employers are scrambling to find ways to stay safe. Work-from-home policies are being promoted as a solution. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, is encouraging employers to make this available for employees. And Twitter's head of human resources, Jennifer Christie, recently told employees to stay at home.
But while working remotely may help prevent contraction of the deadly disease, there's a problem: Many American workers do not have this option.
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Only 29% of US workers have the ability to work remotely, according to US Labor Department data. And low-income earners, such as those in the service or construction industries, are likely to be disproportionately affected by the virus, because they are less likely to benefit work-from-home policies.
According to the Labor data, 35% of top earners—managers and professionals—but only 8% of the lowest earners work from home, on a given day. This also means that not only are lower-income workers more vulnerable, but the virus may also spread more quickly in low-income communities.
Employers are legally obligated to protect the health and safety of their workers, a regulation that falls under the US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This means that employers must consider their workers' physical and mental health.
According to Teresa Bartlett, senior vice president and medical director at Sedgwick, companies should investigate how they can keep their space safe for employees. They should "take a look at their leave and disability policies to see if a 14-day quarantine can be accommodated without negative consequences to employees," for instance.
They should also keep common surfaces clean, like elevator buttons, door knobs, and reception areas, she said, and "encourage proper coughing techniques into elbows, encourage frequent hand washing with soap and water, and have had sanitizer on hand in areas soap and water is not readily available."
"Companies should actively encourage employees to not come to work with a fever or severe cough that may be related to COVID-19," she added.
Yale professor Howard Foreman, a radiologist and expert in healthcare management, is deeply familiar with healthcare workers—everyone from food service employees to those who do the laundry. These employees are critical—but a widespread outbreak could reduce their ability to work at full capacity, Foreman said.
"We have a lot of concerns about the workforce right now," Foreman said. "Even in a worst case scenario, there's relatively few people that are probably infected in the United States. But that could change in a matter of three or four weeks to being a serious epidemic."
It's critical that employers reevaluate their systems, he said. "You realize just how porous the safety net is and how easy it is for different types of people to fall through." Foreman said that now is a time for employers to "think more outside the box about how we can do things remotely."
There are ways to do this that we may not expect. For instance, he said, clinical care can be done remotely. Physicians may be working virtually to provide care to different hospitals.
"All employers—healthcare and non-healthcare—can think creatively about how you construct jobs in the short run to operate with fewer people on site," he added.
You can't minimize the anxiety people feel about the coronavirus, either. "Some people are going to be paralyzed by fear," Foreman said, "and those people probably should be given priority to not have to be at work."
For those who are able, he said, they should be given extra support "in order to know that they're not harming their families and that there are protections in place and that if they become sick that the employer is taking on that liability more than they would resist a usual sickness because that's the system that we have right now."
As soon as testing begins—which our government should ramp up quickly, he said—we're going to find thousands of cases and that's going to scare people. "We're going to go through a period of time where people are going to be prone to panicking and where the numbers are going to become scary."
Public health professionals are "diligently preparing for this," he said, so it's not worth getting too worried about the numbers.
Employers should be compelled to come up with solutions for workers, and prepared for various scenarios, Foreman stressed.
"These are the times where leaders need to be able to step up—before things get to a point where you're forced to come up with a work plan for what to do under these scenarios," he said. But the workplace, he emphasized, is just one piece of broader structures in our society.
"If schools are closed for months," he said, "how can adults who work deal with children at home?"
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