The impact of COVID-19 on hourly and low-wage workers

By Andie Burjek

Mar. 25, 2020

One thing COVID-19 has done in the United States is put a spotlight on how a pandemic impacts lower wage hourly workers versus salaried, higher-earning employees. 

With a limited number of coronavirus tests currently available, many wealthy Americans, celebrities and politicians have been able to get tested for COVID-19 and get results quickly while cutting less affluent people in line. While insurers have waived the copay to get tested for the virus, patients still have to pay for treatment, which could result in thousands of dollars of medical bills. As Time noted, one uninsured patient owed $34,927.43 for her treatment

“While most people infected with COVID-19 will not need to be hospitalized and can recover at home, according to the World Health Organization, those who do need to go to the ICU can likely expect big bills, regardless of what insurance they have,” the article stated. “As the U.S. government works on another stimulus package, future relief is likely to help ease some economic problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but gaps remain.”

Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, workers who need paid sick days the most have the least, wrote Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, in an EPI article. Only 30 percent of the lowest-paid workers — many of whom are hourly workers in the service industry — have the ability to earn paid sick days, and these are the workers who typically have contact with the public.

These workers also typically are the ones who can’t work from home. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, among 25 percent of full-time workers who earn the least, only 9.2 percent have the option to work from home compared to the 61.5 percent of employees who earn the most. 

Also read: The role of businesses in addressing public health outbreaks 

Some companies have been positive in their response to COVID-19.  Microsoft decided to continue to pay all its hourly service providers their regular pay while the company has reduced service needs. Walmart also announced that workers would receive up to two weeks pay should they be quarantined or test positive for the virus. 

According to a Willis Towers Watson survey of 805 companies polled the week of March 16, 72 percent of employers will continue to pay hourly workers who test positive for coronavirus. Similarly, 54 percent will also pay hourly employees who have cold or flu-like symptoms and choose to stay home. Less promising, only 36 percent will continue paying hourly workers when they stay home because they don’t have child care.

Meanwhile, other companies have decided that mass layoffs are necessary so its out-of-work employees can collect unemployment benefits and return to their old job “when this extraordinary episode ends.”

Unemployment benefits may be helpful. But while a common occurrence in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is more people getting laid off, more than 50 percent of employees get health coverage through work. Former employees have to worry about regular finances like rent and food while also figuring out what to do once they’ve lost their employer-provided health insurance

Laid-off employees can sign up for Affordable Care Act coverage, but they need to avoid common, easy mistakes, according to the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy, which provides laid-off employees guidance to find a new insurance plan. For example, short-term insurance coverage can be misleading for consumers, the report noted. This type of health plan may not cover costly services like hospital visits and often doesn’t protect people with pre-existing conditions.

In light of the unique issues facing low-wage and hourly workers, there are certain best practices companies can consider. According to Gallup, these best practices include:

  • Approving additional budget for supplies or additional paid time off.
  • Granting paid time off for symptomatic employees, employees who must care for family members who are diagnosed with COVID-19, and/or employees with diagnosed cases of COVID-19.
  • Permitting unlimited unpaid time off without penalty.
  • Paying for time spent under quarantine.
  • Communicating employer-sponsored insurance and other relevant benefits.
  • Making revisions to employee compensation and benefits policies.

COVID-19 is rapidly changing how businesses operate. We recognize that organizations need an extra helping hand right now. So we’re offering our platform for free to new sign-ups over the coming months. Sign up today and our Workforce Success team will gladly provide a personal, online walkthrough of our platform to help you get started.

Andie Burjek is an associate editor at

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with