What companies are doing to protect vulnerable hourly workers amid outbreak

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the country, major businesses -- from national retailers to chain restaurants -- have been forced to re-evaluate their company policies to help protect hourly workers.

Many chains like Starbucks, Olive Garden and Walmart, among others, have announced temporary updates to those policies and are urging shift workers with customer facing jobs -- that don't have remote or teleworking options -- to stay home if they are sick or symptomatic.

Roughly 33.6 million people, or 24% of U.S. civilian workers, do not have access to paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The access rate to medical care benefits for part-time workers was 22%, according to a 2019 report.

On average, workers in retail and restaurant jobs earn a range of $16 to $20 per hour, according to the BLS.

John H. Chuang, founder and CEO of Aquent, the world's largest creative staffing agency, told ABC News there are a few major concerns for workers with public-facing jobs who rely on their hourly wages that put them at risk during a crisis like coronavirus.

"One of the biggest impacts is that they cannot afford to stay home when they don't feel well," which he said puts "these employees are at the greatest risk because they are interacting with people as a part of their job."

"Whether you are a cashier at Walmart or a server, these workers are constantly interacting with the public. And that brings a lot of concern from a health and safety standpoint, especially since symptoms of the coronavirus may not show up for days or weeks," Chuang explained.

Chuang also said it's a concern "not just for these employees, but for the general public."

What to know about Coronavirus:

Labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations reiterated amid the coronavirus outbreak, that they will continue to advocate for "increased federal, state and local funding needed to restore the public health infrastructure" and to "ensure all workers on the front line of an outbreak are protected from infectious disease agents so they can provide the vital services, treatment and care the public depends on."

The AFL-CIO said in an update on its website that they are working to "develop and disseminate educational, training and logistical resources and recommendations" with materials the CDC, the WHO and research experts about COVID-19

As companies pivot to make temporary measures for the health of their workers, Chuang said a long-term solution is imperative.

"In the case of the coronavirus, many large, medium and small businesses are doing the right thing by providing sick pay and health insurance but it needs to be a permanent change," Chuang said. "This is especially the case for gig economy workers like Uber and Lyft drivers who don't receive any workplace benefits because they are not classified as 'employees.'"

Below is a snapshot of large national chain businesses that have announced changes to their policies in the wake of novel coronavirus.

Food and Beverage

Darden Restaurants

The company told ABC News it has provided paid sick leave for every one of its hourly team members who were not already covered by a policy.

The company reiterated that this decision was not in response to COVID-19 specifically and has been in the works for some time, but the roll out was accelerated "given the current environment."

"Sick leave will accrue at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked," Rich Jeffers, senior director of communications, said. "Current team members have been granted a starting balance based on their most recent 26 weeks of work and can use this benefit immediately."

New team members can accrue sick leave upon hire and can use it after 90 days of employment. Team members can carry over up to 40 hours each year with a maximum balance of 60 hours, the company said.

"We are enhancing our current benefits, which already provides access to flexible schedules, paid family and medical leave, healthcare plans, 401 (k) with company match and extensive training," the company said.

Gene Lee, president and CEO of Darden Restaurants, said, "As we continue to make investments in our employees, we strengthen our greatest competitive edge -- because when our team members win, our guests win."

Chipotle

The fast-casual Mexican food restaurant chain told ABC News it is "monitoring this evolving situation very closely and working with the CDC, FDA, and local officials" as well as following its "existing industry-leading protocols, which prepare us for unforeseen events like COVID-19."

"These include: wellness checks; paid sick leave starting on the first day of employment; air treatment systems; Purell sanitizer for employees and guests; personal hygiene requirements like handwashing every hour; among others," Laurie Schalow, chief corporate reputation officer, said in a statement to ABC News.

To celebrate National Employee Appreciation Day last week Chipotle announced in a press release that it enhanced its paid parental leave and rolled out a new unlimited paid time off plan.

The new unlimited PTO test is for senior level staff and gives eligible employees increased flexibility to juggle priorities at work and home without worrying about accruing vacation or sick time, according to the release.

The restaurant did not confirm any further details on how it would help employees who are already sick or feel symptomatic and need access to tests for coronavirus.

Starbucks

The coffee chain announced a new so-called catastrophe pay solution for any U.S. baristas who have been exposed to coronavirus.

In response to the worsening outbreak, Starbucks said the financial support, which is different than existing sick pay, will be available to employees, regardless if they show symptoms, for up to 14 days, according to a statement given to Bloomberg News.

If an employee is unable to return to work after that time, Starbucks said it will offer additional pay replacement for as long as 26 weeks.

Retailers

Walmart

In response to the novel coronavirus emergency, the retailer announced on Tuesday that it would implement an emergency leave policy for the company's 1.4 million hourly workers effective immediately.

"We are also pleased that, in response to COVID-19, the Walmart Associates in Critical Need Trust, an independent charitable trust (ACNT), temporarily waived the eligibility requirement that U.S. associates be employed with Walmart for 365 days before they can apply for a grant," the company said in a press release.

Walmart has repeatedly urged employees during this time to stay home if they are not feeling well.

"If you determine you are unable to work or are uncomfortable at work, you can choose to stay home. To ensure you feel supported making this choice, we will waive our attendance occurrence policy through the end of April, but please call in as usual to let us know. In order to be paid for this time, you may use your regular paid time off options," the company said.

After one employee contracted coronavirus at a store in Cynthiana, Kentucky, Walmart said the woman has received medical care and her condition is improving.

"If your store, club, office or distribution center is part of a mandated quarantine or if you're required to quarantine by a government agency or by Walmart, you will receive up to two weeks of pay, and absences during the time you are out will not count against attendance," Walmart said. "We've chosen two weeks because it matches the recommended time for quarantines related to this virus."

If an employee who has been diagnosed or quarantined is unable to return to work after the determined amount of time, Walmart said additional pay replacement may be provided for up to 26 weeks for both full-time and part-time hourly associates.

Gig economy app-based companies

Postmates

The gig-worker delivery service announced an "emergency fleet relief" fund to help cover medical expenses for its couriers.

"For its fleet of flexible workers and couriers, Postmates has created an emergency fleet relief fund from which it will cover the costs of workers' doctors appointments and medical expenses," the company said in a blog announcement. "This fund will allow couriers in impacted states to take proactive and preventative steps, and will cover medical check-ups regardless of whether the courier has been quarantined or diagnosed with COVID-19."

Uber

The ride-sharing service urged its workers who are infected to self-isolate and the company will provide two weeks of compensation.

"Any driver or delivery person who is diagnosed with COVID-19 or is individually asked to self-isolate by a public health authority will receive financial assistance for up to 14 days while their account is on hold," Uber said in a statement. "We've already helped drivers in some affected areas, and we're working to quickly implement this worldwide."

Lyft

"We will provide funds to drivers should they be diagnosed with COVID-19 or put under individual quarantine by a public health agency. This helps support drivers financially when they can't drive, while also protecting our riders' health," the company said in an announcement on its website.

Lyft said the funds will be given to affected drivers who are identified to them by public health officials or who contact the company's support team and provide documentation that they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or put under quarantine by a public health agency.

"We will provide funds to affected drivers based on the rides they provided on the Lyft platform over the last four weeks," Lyft said.

Instacart

The self-assign personal grocery shopping app implemented a "new sick pay policy" that will help its workers accrue benefits to be used as paid sick time.

"Today, we're introducing a new sick pay policy for all in-store shoppers nationally to offer more support to this valued community," the company shared in an online post. All Instacart part-time employees now have access to sick pay, an accrued benefit that can be used as paid time off if you are absent from work due to illness or injury."

Events and Sports Venues

Dallas Mavericks

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, quickly responded to the news that the NBA would suspend its season and announced he would work to help compensate hourly employees impacted by coronavirus.

The entrepreneur told ESPN he reached out to see how he could help support employees who can't come to work financially.

Cuban also told ABC News, "Where we can support those vendors, where I can give them extra work, where we can do anything to help them and encourage others to do the same, that's exactly what we're going to do."
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