By Scott Downes
On March 10, amid escalating concerns over the spread of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus), Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency for Colorado. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment issued a rule that included emergency paid sick leave, requiring four days of paid sick leave for workers being tested for COVID-19 in select industries, with some stipulations. By the evening of March 13, a potential deal between the White House and Congress was reportedly reached that would provide emergency leave, including two weeks paid sick leave and up to three months paid family and medical leave, as well as increased unemployment insurance, food assistance and health care funding. The House passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in the early hours of March 14, and the President Trump-supported legislation is to be taken up by the Senate as early as March 16.
The state’s emergency ruling and the pending congressional deal are an attempt to give some shred of protection for workers who cannot simply miss work—those who rely on hourly wages, often minimum wage, who otherwise have no safety net. It is all a critical reminder of the fragile circumstances in which so many workers find themselves—even in, what just a week ago, was one of the strongest state economies in the country.
“Stay home. See a doctor. Keep your children home from school. Great advice for limiting the spread of COVID-19, but a prescription for economic disaster for low-wage workers and their families,” said Leng Leng Chancey, executive director of 9to5, a national membership organization representing working women, in a statement. “It is also a public health calamity for consumers and communities, when workers in restaurants, child care and centers that care for the elderly must risk their paycheck or their job to stay home.”
“Our economy is not structured to account for people not being at work,” said Debra Brown, executive director of Good Business Colorado, a network of values-driven businesses, in an interview.
“If you don’t show up and you don’t work, you don’t get paid,” said Brown of hourly-wage workers.
According to a 2018 report from the Colorado Fiscal Institute (CFI), about one in four jobs in Colorado are considered low-wage, which CFI defines as a job paying less than what a full-time worker who supports a family of four would need to earn to live above the federal poverty level. (Editor's note: the author of this story previously worked as a consultant to CFI.)
Of the 2,620,640 total jobs in Colorado in 2018, 610,000 were classified as low-wage, according to the CFI report. These jobs are likelier to be held by women, Black, Latinx or multiracial workers. Overall, 30% of female workers are in low-wage jobs compared to 24% of men. More than 30% of Black and biracial workers, and more than 38% of Latinx workers, are in low-wage jobs.
“A lot of what we’re hearing is sort of a lose-lose situation,” said Ashley Panelli, an organizer with 9to5 Colorado. “People clearly don’t want to get sick and want to prevent that as much as possible. But for them to be able to do something like isolate themselves or take necessary precautions to lower that likelihood, they are facing issues like not having paid time off or their rent is due and they really need that paycheck coming in.”
On Thursday, March 12, following the governor’s emergency declaration, countless office closures and cancellations quickly followed across the state, raising more questions about what effect it would have on hourly-wage workers. If they had not done so already, businesses, nonprofits and others quickly ceased allowing outside visitors and implemented work-from-home policies for staff for varying lengths of time extending into April.
Inexplicably, despite the NBA and NHL suspending Nuggets and Avalanche games indefinitely, and state and city emergency declarations, the Pepsi Center—owned and operated by Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE)—held a concert the evening of March 12 with several thousand attendees. According to its own website, the Pepsi Center requires more than 1,000 staff to put on events.
One Nuggets beat reporter tweeted, “I just can’t get over how reckless this is… your sports teams aren’t allowed to play games when this arena is empty. That you allowed this to happen tonight is unconscionable.”
In response to a request for comment from KSE, Tomago Collins, vice president of communications, said that it wasn’t his job to answer health questions.
“We’re just trying to figure out what the hell is going on,” he said.
KSE has not said whether it would assist Pepsi Center employees or dependent businesses, amid the unprecedented work stoppage. [Editor's note: Just over an hour after this story was published on the evening of March 14, KSE issued a statement announcing that it will "continue to pay" hourly and part-time workers at the Pepsi Center and other KSE-owned venues in the Denver metro area for the next 30 days.]
"I can't live like this for that much longer," said one Pepsi Center employee of the uncertainty surrounding his job, in a DNVR article published on March 13.
By March 13, dozens of Colorado school districts—including several of the largest in the state—announced closures for the next few weeks. These closures left families across the state to deal with the added demands of figuring out child care, meals and other issues.
A medical assistant, who did not want to share her name as she didn’t have her employer’s permission to discuss her situation, recently started an hourly job working at a health clinic in the San Luis Valley. Her daughter’s school closed for at least three weeks.
“That’s a long time,” she said. “And I just started, so I can’t take time off and I don’t want to ask for time off. My schedule is pretty set, I have to be there, and I have to find care for her full time. ”
The closures also left educators and support staff to wonder about paychecks, as paid-leave plans vary widely from district to district.
“The people who keep our schools running—custodians, food service workers, secretaries and bus drivers just to name some—are most vulnerable to distress and losing their sense of economic security during a long school closure,” said Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert in a press statement. “Districts must value the immeasurable contributions of education support professionals to student success and compensate them with the full pay and benefits they would normally receive during the school year.”
Still, life went on in some places. On one stretch of Colfax Avenue in Denver, restaurants and bars and music venues hummed along on Thursday and Friday last week with their usual pre-weekend patrons, albeit seemingly less crowded than normal.
Concert-goers gradually streamed into the Bluebird Theatre to see the Copper Children, a local band. Restaurants and bars were partially filled with patrons. One marijuana dispensary reported a bit of a rush of people trying to stock up. It all had a similar feeling to the night before a big storm, a vague anticipation of everything being closed down.
But what happens to the workers when the storm hits?
Some businesses had clear policies in place for employees, while many appeared to be scrambling to determine how best to stay open for business and take care of customers and workers alike.
“It’s such a slim margin, these types of events can have a disproportionate effect on single operators or the smallest businesses that are barely getting by as is,” added Brown of Good Business Colorado, in a cautionary note.
Hooked on Colfax, a Bluebird District coffee shop, implemented more robust cleaning measures, a hand sanitizer dispenser for customers, and other measures to stay open for business.
“Large events have been cancelled for the next couple weeks, and training shifts have been cancelled,” said owner Malissa Spero. “Depending on how this weekend goes, we might start closing early next week.”
Some businesses, such as the local burrito shop franchise Illegal Pete’s, are taking it upon themselves to offer paid time off for employees.
“The health of the more vulnerable in our communities is a responsibility that lies on each of our shoulders,” they said in an emailed statement.
In addition to all salaried employees continuing to receive full pay, Denver Public Schools announced that hourly employees would be "paid as if they were previously scheduled to work" during the planned three-week school closure. (As of publication, other school districts had not yet made such a commitment.) The district is also providing free grab-and-go breakfast and lunch at at least eight locations for students, many of whom rely on school meals. Nearly two-thirds of DPS students qualify for free and reduced meals.
Severe reductions in travel are also expected to have a massive, cascading impact on workers, including those at hotels, restaurants and bars, as well as workers for Uber, Lyft and other app-based platforms.
Denver International Airport, which has more than 35,000 workers, did not respond to a request for comment about how their employees will be impacted and what is being done to support them. Neither did Visit Denver, the city's visitor and convention bureau, which already reported a loss of more than $80 million in economic impact due to convention and other event cancellations. (That number is only likely to grow.)
The full ripple effect of mass closures and cancellations is hard to quantify immediately, but the contours of it are clear. Closures and cancellations mean many people can’t work, and many will not be able to pay for essentials like food, housing and health care.
A 2019 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, based on data from two Federal Reserve surveys, shows many households simply are on tight budgets and cannot weather a loss of income. The Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking found that 40% of households say they could not cover an emergency expense that costs $400 without needing to borrow, sell something, stop paying other bills, or simply not being able to pay. This included 17% of households that earned more than $100,000 in annual income; they, too, say it would be a struggle to meet that kind of expense. The Survey of Consumer Finances, which assesses actual financial resources, found that about 20% of American households have less than $400 in their bank accounts.
Even health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic will feel the economic pain.
“We have a number of members working in the health care industry,” said Panelli of 9to5 Colorado. “A nurse actually said to me she is exposed to this more than the average person, but she doesn’t have health insurance through her job and she doesn’t have PTO or sick days. And for her to become sick would mean she’s taking two to three weeks of unpaid time off. And then also have to front the additional cost of the health care treatment when you don’t have insurance.”
“We’re hearing a lot of damned if you do, damned if you don’t stories,” Panelli added. “We’re putting people in a pretty difficult situation to choose between their health and their income.”
What’s clear from both workers and businesses, particularly those earning lower wages, is that emergency state and federal intervention is needed, in the immediate term and beyond.
“Workers do not have the security they need to stay home when they’re sick, and that is not going to change without legislative action,” said Brown.
“We’re hoping to see swift action to put into place universal paid leave, paid sick days, and paid family and medical leave,” said Panelli, “so people can access those things in an adequate amount of time that addresses how long it takes to recover from something like this.”
Advocates are also looking at policies like emergency unemployment funds, food assistance, and moratoriums on evictions to give lower-wage workers more relief if and when income lags—“so that as businesses are shutting down and workers aren’t getting income, they are not forced to pay rent and utilities,” Panelli said. Such solutions are “cognizant of the realities the lowest-wage workers are facing.”
Some of the realities that are coming into play now include issues such as paid family and medical leave that have been debated and delayed in Colorado for years. It also includes barriers to accessing resources like the free drive-thru coronavirus testing provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Requiring ID checks and a note from a doctor, or even having to wait in line for several hours, can be an insurmountable hurdle to hourly-wage workers, people without insurance and people without documentation.
“This conversation has been going on for years now, about what is the best way to deliver [paid family and medical leave], and who will be negatively impacted if we impose this universal state-run program,” Panelli concluded. “A lot of conversation is around what is political viable, what is the political reality around what can be done—and I really am urging people to just understand that we’re truly in the middle of facing a public health crisis, and to put politics aside and really objectively look at what is going to be the most effective thing for communities to keep everybody safe as possible.”
“The federal and state and local government need to act to make sure that people aren’t losing their housing, aren’t losing their benefits, and that they are being taken care of,” Brown said. “These [changes] are long overdue. If you’re going do the right thing now, that’s great—better late than never.”
The spread of a pandemic virus may not discriminate based on race, age, gender, zip code, or even income. But the capacity for many individuals and families, and even whole communities, to absorb the fallout and bounce back is wholly inequitable and too often hinges on what kind of job you have, where you work, and what you make.
“This is really forcing people to recognize that our system is really out of whack,” said Brown. “This is a manifestion of our sick economy.”