Monday, March 9, 2020

Make unemployment work for coronavirus

During one of his daily coronavirus press conferences last week, Governor Cuomo said the following:
“I’m going to amend the paid sick leave bill that I sent to the Legislature to where there is a specific provision that says people, who because of this situation with coronavirus, have to be quarantined should be protected. Their employer should pay them for the period of quarantine and their job should be protected.”

If an outbreak forced a workplace or community quarantine you’d be looking at, minimally, a 14-day quarantine as that seems to be the current standard operating procedure suggested by health officials. But, it could also be longer – look at Japan, where schools were shutdown for a month, or China, where the Hubei province has been in non-essential lockdown since January 23rd and will be until March 10th or later.

Under any of those scenarios, mandated quarantine pay would be a recipe for disaster for businesses.

Imagine diners, tourism destinations, machine shops, auto garages and more all being shuttered for 2 full weeks. Depending on how many days rest someone typically gets, that could be 10 to 13 days of pay (given the bare bones 14-day quarantine) that the employer would have to pay their workforce in full to not work at all…at a time when the business is down and not earning any revenue and will likely see lower revenues before and after the shutdown due to consumers being hesitant about going out in public.

Yet without some income, a quarantine would be a recipe for disaster for households.

If a family is sequestered through no fault of their own for 2 weeks, maybe longer, they’ve lost that income unless they have vacation time and other paid time off to use.

What if they have no PTO left to lean on? 2 weeks lost is approximately a 4% drop in annual income, money that won’t be spent on necessities or niceties. That’s the issue that concerns Cuomo.

But, he’s going about it all wrong.

For starters, his idea will be too little too late for workers.

Paid sick leave is not yet an employee benefit mandated by the State. The Governor and the Legislature’s leaders have to iron out their versions which will appear in the state budget (the place where lawmakers hide controversial bills). The budget won’t be passed until April 1st. From there, the Department of Labor and/or the Department of Health will likely hold public hearings to iron out the regulations. That could take 90 to 120 days. Then, it’s highly unlikely that a mandate that demands leave in annual doses and comes with corresponding requirements would go into effect this year -- it would have to have a January 1 start.   

Hopefully, by then, coronavirus would have run its course through the nature of the beast, advancements in medical science, and improved public and private health protocol.

So, in the more immediate future, how is one supposed to make sure quarantined families and businesses alike aren’t hurt?

The answer: The mechanism we’ve always had at our disposal – unemployment insurance.

In theory, everyone placed in quarantine by corporate or government decree is laid off. There’s no work available at that time.

There’s no reason why temporary emergency legislation -  minor tweak to unemployment -- couldn’t be put into play that would do three things: One, allow employers to access unemployment as an option during a coronavirus business suspension; Two, allow employees that were active before the quarantine and after it to receive unemployment benefits without the requirement that they beready, willing, and able to work, and actively looking for work during each week in which you are claiming benefits”; And, three, eliminate the unpaid waiting week so impacted workers can collect unemployment benefits for both weeks of their two-week lockdown.

Workers would receive an income and businesses wouldn’t lose even more money in the depressed coronavirus economy.

It’s simple; let’s make unemployment work for everyone. Utilize the tools we have before we roll out new ones and regret having done so. In this crisis, like all that will come to be, we must approach public policy in a responsible fashion, free of knee-jerk reactions and the quest for political brownie points.

From the 09 March 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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