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Service workers may have an especially tough time coping with the coronavirus outbreak

Members of Boston's economic development office visited businesses in Fields Corner in Dorchester to see what services they can provide to help them ride out the coronavirus storm. Above, Natalia Urtubey (left), the city's director of small business, chatted with Xaviel Pena and Kevin Nguyen at Homstead Bakery.
Members of Boston's economic development office visited businesses in Fields Corner in Dorchester to see what services they can provide to help them ride out the coronavirus storm. Above, Natalia Urtubey (left), the city's director of small business, chatted with Xaviel Pena and Kevin Nguyen at Homstead Bakery.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Amy Banelis has been quarantined at home in Lynn since the daughter of one of her clients was sent home from school with coronavirus-like symptoms. Banelis, an employment specialist at Triangle Inc. in Malden who helps adults with developmental disabilities find and keep jobs, has already used up her eight annual sick days and is unsure what will happen if she falls ill. Employees who test positive for COVID-19 won’t be charged sick time, and this week the company stopped deducting sick time for any illness, at least through March 28, although Banelis was under the impression she would still have to borrow against future days.

Banelis, a single mom of an 11-year-old girl, also isn’t sure how much longer she can work from home, as the majority of her time is typically spent out in the community. But if she’s cleared to resume her normal duties — a challenging prospect with much of the economy coming to a standstill — she could risk further exposure. And now her daughter’s school is closed.

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On Monday, Triangle announced that all employees will be paid in full through at least March 28.

Alberto's Pub & Pizza worries about workers
Because of coronavirus, restaurants must stop dine-in operations. Alberto's Pub & Pizza management is worried about its workers. (Shelby Lum|Globe Staff)

As concerns about the spread of COVID-19 have ricocheted throughout the region, it’s raising tough questions throughout the labor force, as workers and employers scramble to re-imagine work as we know it and policies change by the day.

Few have felt the effects more acutely than those in the service industry, which fell victim to the economic slowdown early as people stayed home and hours were cut at restaurants, tour companies, and hotels — and now it’s facing statewide restaurant closures.

And many local governments, consumed with addressing a hydra-like health care crisis, have yet to fully map out resources for workers who may soon be facing unemployment.

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Labor advocates and industry groups are pushing legislators to enact preventative measures to help protect the most vulnerable.

“Two weeks ago we were in the best labor market in 50 years," said Andrew Challenger, vice president of the labor-tracking firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

But that’s all changed.

“At least 50 percent of jobs in the US economy cannot be done remotely,” Challenger said. "Driving buses and working in restaurants, movie theaters, and barber shops — those jobs can’t be done remotely and require foot traffic.”

“So many workers today are gig workers,” he added. “When you’re inside a company, in some ways you’re sheltered to the immediate impacts of supply and demand, but if you’re driving Uber and people stop riding, you’re laid bare to the economic storm.”

Last week, the Department of Labor took steps to aid affected workers, announcing that states can amend their unemployment laws to provide pay to workers affected by the outbreak. Workers whose employers temporarily cease operations as a result of the outbreak could be eligible for benefits, and workers who are quarantined or who are caring for family members could also apply.

Governor Charlie Baker said that he hopes to expand eligibility for collecting unemployment and filed a bill Monday to allow workers to immediately collect unemployment benefits.

On Friday, the Massachusetts restaurant industry, which employs more than 350,000 workers, asked the state to expand unemployment insurance by raising the weekly maximum benefit, allowing workers to get assistance for underemployment or reduced ability to work, and speeding up the usual three-to four-week processing time. Restaurant owners are also asking to suspend the meals tax to leave them with more money to pay employees and keep their doors open.

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The Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said that it is analyzing the new federal guidelines and looking into emergency regulations to assist workers affected by the virus. Additionally, the office suspended the requirement that unemployment recipients attend in-person meetings to receive benefits; on Monday and Tuesday, the state temporarily halted all in-person unemployment services.

A bill passed by the US House last week — and supported by President Trump — would give some workers two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave, covered by a tax credit. Gig workers would also be eligible to apply for the tax credit. The benefit would be limited to workers who are sick, under quarantine, or caring for a family member.

It would apply only to businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Companies with fewer than 50 workers could apply for an exemption for the paid family and medical leave.

The bill also includes $1 billion for emergency grants for states to pay and process unemployment insurance. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure this week.

Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of labor, religious, and community organizations, is planning to work with the governor and Legislature to allow workers to get two weeks of paid sick leave during a crisis. Currently, workers at companies with 11 or more employees are entitled to up to 40 hours of earned sick time a year.

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Municipal workers, who aren't covered by the current sick time law, would also get two weeks. Raise Up is also proposing that the 90-day probationary period for new employees to use sick time be waived during a state of emergency.

“Five days of sick time is clearly inadequate for what we’re confronted with today,” Raise Up spokesman Steve Crawford wrote in an e-mail.

A number of companies have started extending paid sick time benefits to hourly employees who may otherwise get only the minimum 40 hours mandated by state law. Amazon, Walmart, Olive Garden, and SweetGreen are among businesses that have granted more generous benefits to workers, although most are limiting them to employees who are under quarantine or diagnosed with COVID-19.

Uber and Lyft have said they will compensate drivers affected by coronavirus, but drivers in Massachusetts and California who are suing the ride-hailing companies over their status as independent contractors say this doesn’t go far enough. They filed complaints last week asking the courts to order Uber and Lyft to immediately classify drivers as employees and offer all of them the paid sick leave mandated by state laws, which would encourage those who haven’t been diagnosed or quarantined to stay home from work.

Cassandria Campbell, a cofounder of Fresh Food Generation, a Dorchester caterer and cafe, said she has seen her orders from local businesses and universities evaporate over the past week. She has temporarily shuttered the cafe and is mapping out how long she can keep paying her employees. She said she’s hoping to use the downtime to offer the job training programs and a retreat that she’s been too busy to provide her staff.

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“We’re seeing how long we can support our staff without having any incoming orders,” she said. “And if the crisis continues past that point we’ll look for what resources are available in the city as a business to support them or to support them directly.”

On Thursday, Boston’s Office of Economic Development released a survey to assess the impact of the outbreak on the city’s small businesses. And on Friday teams from the city began canvassing door-to-door.

“Everything is dead, my business is down more than 75 percent,” Emilio Valdez, the owner of Atlantic Travel Agency in Fields Corner, said as he answered the survey. Vasquez said that in 30 years in business, he has never seen things grind to a halt like this. He does not have a contingency plan or business-interruption insurance.

Natalia Urtubey, the city’s director of small business, said the office is looking to use the survey results to design workshops for businesses that are suffering and plans to put its resources online. Its hotline is available for those seeking immediate guidance.

But some advocates point out that many of these protections, should they go into effect, won’t reach the entire working population.

Jerold Mande, a former US Department of Agriculture deputy undersecretary who teaches at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said he’s particularly concerned about undocumented workers, who are among the most vulnerable people in the service economy.

“There are tens of millions of people who are not necessarily here legally . . . We’ve scared them into hiding, and yet they’re not in hiding from this disease,” Mande said. He said he’s concerned about their “willingness to come forward, speak out, and seek help.”

Global health scares are not unprecedented; what’s unprecedented is our dependence on the service economy, Mande said. “What makes this so hard now is how much we still don’t know, and how ill-prepared we are and the nature of the changing economy and in terms of how people make money.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos. Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.