Coronavirus puts service workers at unnecessary risk

COVID-19 has been at the center of all our lives for a few weeks now. It seems every day there’s another confirmed case in the state. University classes have been moved online for the rest of the semester, and Gov. Hutchinson suspended class for all public schools until after spring break.  Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. announced a city-wide curfew from 12 to 5 a.m. starting last Wednesday and is suggesting that restaurants transition over to carry out and delivery only.

Several companies are allowing their employees to work from home, but what about those in the service industry? When your paycheck depends on whether or not someone walks through the door of your business, what do you do during a pandemic, when most people are staying inside?

Many restaurants have upped sanitary measures over the past couple of weeks, my restaurant job included. We have been sanitizing every menu, condiment and salt and pepper shaker every time a table leaves. We’re all washing our hands every couple of minutes and taking pretty much every precaution we can. Our managers even encouraged us to stay home if we were feeling sick.

The problem is that a lot of people who work in the service industry don’t get paid leave. This means even when they are sick, and they can take off, they are less likely to stay home if they need the money. People have bills to pay. So, even with all of these precautions, the virus can spread. 

Service industry workers typically will see hundreds of customers per night.  Not only does this put them at a higher risk of catching something, but it also makes them someone who could potentially infect thousands of people within days if they get sick and don’t take off.

Business this week was particularly slow.  While we’re usually packed on weekends, we had open tables for most of the night.  People are smart to not go out right now, I’m not advising against that, but it is having a major impact on about 10% of Arkansans’ income stability.

While right now we’re still able to serve, if things continue to go the way they have been the past week, we are likely to switch to carry out only as well. 

But what are people supposed to do if they can’t go into work for weeks at a time? Bills don’t stop coming in, people still have to eat, life doesn’t just stop because we’ve been quarantined. And while some companies have said they’ll continue to pay their employees hourly, that’s not the reality for everyone.

While there are no perfect answers to this problem, making sick leave mandatory by law like it is in every other developed country would definitely help.

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