Business owners fret over workers, paying for leave because of coronavirus

Posted March 16, 2020 8:16 p.m. EDT
Updated March 16, 2020 8:20 p.m. EDT

— The coronavirus pandemic could deliver a one-two punch for U.S. workers. Some could be forced to stay home because of illness, while others might have their hours cut because the public is hunkering down during the outbreak and isn't shopping or going out as much.

Many of those workers lack paid leave. Congress is trying to help them – and their employers – but not everyone believes all workers will be covered.

Pending legislation would provide reimbursement assistance for paid leave to businesses with fewer than 500 workers. The measure also includes money for free coronavirus testing and would expand food assistance and unemployment benefits to more people.

"We know that we need to persevere here," Democratic 4th District Congressman David Price said Monday. "This is unique, with the degree of the devastation and the uncertainty surrounding it and the anxiety that everyone feels."

For employers with no current paid leave policy, covering the cost of leave for at least 14 days – possibly longer – would be a financial hardship for both worker and employer.

"It's going to be really challenging," said Tyler Helikson, who owns four Happy + Hale cafes that employ about 100 people total. "As much as I would love to pay everybody for the duration of the shutdown, if that happens, as a small business, there's just not enough money to go around."

"It would be very tough," agreed Chris Bromley, owner of Virgil's Original Taqueria in downtown Raleigh, who has about two dozen workers.

Even with the proposed reimbursement option, some small businesses may not be able to afford the initial cost and could file for an exemption.

Price said that would hurt many workers in small businesses.

"We have to make sure those exceptions are not readily granted because a lot of the people that need to be helped are going to be in those firms," he said.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses already has come out against the bill, saying it limits the flexibility for small businesses and imposes an unsustainable mandate on them to cover paid leave costs.

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.