Derek Kaye was trying to do the right thing. A driver for Uber and Lyft and an entrepreneur from Lake Stevens, Snohomish County, Kaye came down with a fever and other symptoms consistent with the new coronavirus on Feb. 29. Worried he might have contracted it, Kaye called multiple hotlines to find out what he should do and how he could get tested.
After hours on hold with various hotlines over many days, he was told several times he didn’t need to get tested. As an otherwise healthy 33-year-old, Kaye was pretty confident he would recover, but was worried about everyone else. What about the passengers he drove before he started having symptoms? What about his family? Didn’t they need to know they could have been exposed?
“I felt a heavy weight of, ‘If I have this, what are my responsibilities? Have I spread this to other people?’ ” Kaye said. “And I felt a huge burden at that same time when I’m trying to get answers, I’m just getting nowhere.”
On top of his concerns about spreading a potentially contagious disease, as a gig worker, Kaye had something else to worry about: no sick leave.
Like over 80% of independent contractors surveyed in a 2019 Washington Department of Commerce study, Kaye does not have paid sick leave through his primary source of income. The time he will need to take off to recover will be unpaid and there is financial pressure to get back to work. While Uber announced on Friday it would provide up to 14 days of pay for U.S. drivers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or are placed in quarantine by public health agencies, the policy would not help drivers like Kaye, who were not able to get tested.
Some of Kaye’s fears of contagion were realized as his business partner and his two small children, aged 2 and 6, all came down with fevers and the same symptoms shortly after he did.
The COVID-19 epidemic is a wake-up call. It has exposed the many holes and tattered edges in our social safety net that have long existed, but were not seen as urgent enough to fix. This virus is shining a bright light on a lot of ugly truths and helping us see where we need to focus our attention for everyone’s health and safety.
Ugly truths like the fact that while Washington has one of the most progressive sick and safe time laws in the country — mandating all employers provide paid sick leave for workers — it does not apply to the 9% of workers like Kaye who are classified as independent contractors. Gov. Jay Inslee called it a “patriotic act” to stay home if you’re sick, but that patriotism requires much more sacrifice for gig workers.
This growing category of workers includes many who work in public-facing, high-contact jobs like ride-share drivers, grocery and food delivery and some home care and child care. Without paid sick leave, workers face hard choices between working through their illness or not paying their rent. While not solving the sick-leave problem, one Seattle campaign announced last week would at least mandate minimum wage for gig workers on delivery apps.
Brian Chen, a staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, said the risks are real for gig workers. “The very sad and unfair truth is that they will face heightened risks of being exposed to and transmitting coronavirus.” Chen said, “When you don’t have a guaranteed sick pay and don’t have the protection of earning a certain minimum wage, you have the incentive to keep working even when you’re feeling sick, even when you’re exhibiting symptoms of some kind of illness.”
When ill people work, more people get ill. A paper on the impact of sick leave laws found that flu cases dropped 11% in places that implemented paid sick leave.
This crisis has also exposed what we have long known: our health care system is not up to the task of caring for the sick on the best of days, and particularly not in a disease epidemic. Officials are scrambling to fill some of the most obvious gaps, like requiring some insurers to cover the coronavirus test — it’s hard to believe that even needs to be mandated — but the rest of the system remains woefully inadequate.
It’s bad enough that over 27.5 million people have no health insurance at all, but the ones that do sometimes can’t afford to use it. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation/Los Angeles Times study, half of those with employer-sponsored insurance postponed care for themselves and their families because they couldn’t afford the co-pay or deductible. At a free four-day health clinic in Seattle last month, about half of the 3,000 attendees reported they had health insurance, but it was too expensive or inadequate to use. How does a population too afraid to use health care stay healthy in an epidemic?
Kaye said the fact there was still no widely available testing for the new coronavirus six weeks after the first U.S. case was found in his county makes him feel like he is in a third-world country. “It just makes America look really backwards right now. Other countries [have] better testing, better quarantine, better technology than the U.S. We’re just scrambling.”
The COVID-19 crisis poses an opportunity for us to urgently patch and sew our frayed safety net so none of us fall through. If this experience has taught us anything, it’s that we are all in this together and that we can act quickly if we want to. If one person’s health is at risk, we are all at risk. Maybe you think someone else’s lack of health insurance or sick leave is not your problem — this crisis shows us that the problem belongs to all of us.