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‘It’s terrifying’: Service workers fear for their jobs, health as coronavirus spreads

Konica Rice of Baltimore, who is a food service worker at Johns Hopkins University, worries about the possibility of layoffs due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Konica Rice of Baltimore, who is a food service worker at Johns Hopkins University, worries about the possibility of layoffs due to the coronavirus outbreak.(Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Last week, Konica Rice of Baltimore was looking forward to moving from a cramped apartment to a more spacious rental home closer to her kids’ school. Now, the food service worker at Johns Hopkins University doesn’t know what her future holds.

Rice, 32, was shocked when Hopkins told students to stay home after spring break amid the national outbreak of the new coronavirus. She fears she will lose work and couldn’t afford to move if she does.

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“It’s totally unexpected," said Rice, a mother of three who lives in Edmondson Village. “Unemployment is not enough to live off of.”

As cases of the respiratory disease grow in Maryland and throughout the country, daily life is being upended for people from every walk of life. But Rice and other low-paid service employees are especially worried. Their jobs may not provide benefits needed to cope with the outbreak and their interactions with the public put them at risk.

“The coronavirus is quickly showing the cracks in our social insurance programs and labor protections,” said Melissa Boteach, vice president for income security and child care at the National Women’s Law Center.

The organization is among those calling on Congress to aid families in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a sweeping bill Saturday that provides emergency paid sick leave for workers affected by coronavirus. The measure also would enhance unemployment insurance, provide free testing and increase federal Medicaid funding. President Donald J. Trump supports the legislation and it now heads to the Senate.

Federal law in the United States currently doesn’t require employers to provide paid sick time. In the wake of the outbreak, some companies are putting new policies in place.

After a Kentucky worker tested positive for the coronavirus, Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, announced this week that employees subject to mandatory quarantine or those infected with the virus will receive up to two weeks of pay.

And Darden Restaurants, which owns the Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and other chain restaurants, announced a new paid sick leave policy for all hourly employees. A Darden spokesman said the company was working on the plan already, but sped it up amid the virus’ spread.

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Maryland is one of a dozen states that does require paid sick leave. In 2018, the state’s General Assembly overturned Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act.

The law requires companies with at least 15 employees to let workers accrue up to five paid sick days a year. At smaller businesses, workers can earn unpaid leave.

“Sick leave laws are an effective buffer against epidemics like this,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore. “We’re really hoping that employers will do their best to be flexible."

But the outbreak is revealing the limits of the state’s law, Dworak-Fisher said. The law allows exemptions for groups of workers, including agricultural workers and temporary employees.

“The law does not cover everyone, and that’s a problem,” she said.

Nationally, 73% of private-sector workers have paid sick time, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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But the benefit varies across industries and wage levels. Of the lowest-earning of workers, only 30% have paid sick leave. More than 90% of the highest-earning workers do.

Many low-wage workers are accustomed to working through illness, said Caryn York, CEO of the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore, which works to remove barriers to employment.

“The culture in this country has been, you just plow through,” she said.

Now, many are worried about the outbreak because they lack health benefits — or they are afraid to ask for the sick time they’re legally entitled to for fear of losing their job, York said.

Anxiety is high among employees at BWI Marshall Airport, said jetway mechanic Mark Souder of Southwest Baltimore.

“We’re all scared,” Souder said. “Working at the airport, we get all these travelers from everywhere.”

"It’s terrifying to know that we could lose our health benefits over something we can’t even control.”


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Souder, 58, works for Menzies Aviation, which contracts with several airlines.

He said he didn’t go with his employer health plan because it was too expensive. Instead, he bought coverage through the state health insurance exchange. When he recently needed three days off to deal with a health problem, he had to use some vacation days because his boss said he hadn’t accrued enough sick time yet to cover it all.

Local restaurants are reporting a drop in business, leading some to reduce hours for staff.

Brian Boston, the chef and operating partner of the Milton Inn in Sparks, said the number of diners began dropping about a week ago and now is down by about half.

“There’s nothing we can do but cut back on staff,” he said. “We’ve been going without a hostess, without bus people."

On Wednesday, for example, he had reservations for about 70 people on Saturday night and doubted he would reach even 100. Normally, he would schedule eight servers for a Saturday night but thinks he will only ask four or five to work that night.

“Even my regulars, they’re staying home,” he said. “We’re still seeing people, but we’ve had a lot of cancellations.”

Waiter William Novakowski said he usually works about 22 hours a week over three nights as a second job — he works in medical claims and benefits management during the day. So far, he’s lost one shift to the slowdown at the restaurant.

Many service workers are used to seasonal ups and downs, said Roxie Herbekian, president of Local 7 of Unite Here, which represents workers at hotels, casinos, event venues and food service, including at Hopkins and other universities. But the current upheaval has been a shock.

“We’re really calling on the whole industry to be sympathetic to workers," including by maintaining health insurance for employees who lose hours, she said. “It’s going to be rough on folks.”

Labor and community organizations also are pushing for state lawmakers to make it easier for people to get unemployment benefits and to be protected from evictions and foreclosures if they are laid off due to coronavirus, she said.

Rice, the Hopkins dining worker, said she has been temporarily laid off before during university breaks. But usually she knows to plan ahead. For instance, her husband, who works in telemarketing, will make time to earn extra money driving for Uber or Lyft.

She also felt the dining service workers were not kept in the loop as concerns increased about the coronavirus.

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“The only thing they kept telling us was to keep your hands clean, wash your hands," Rice said. "A lot of the information that we received in regards to the coronavirus, we received it from the news outlets and the students.”

Hopkins’ food service is provided by Bon Appetit Management Co. Spokeswoman Bonnie Powell said Thursday that the food service remains open.

“This is a fast-changing situation, and we are attempting to keep our staff informed as best we can while we explore the available options in partnership with the university,” she said in an email.

A university spokeswoman said “dining service workers are highly valued here on campus — truly beloved by our students.”

“We have not yet assessed our ongoing needs across a number of service contracts in this rapidly-evolving situation,” Hopkins spokeswoman Jill Rosen said in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “Right now our primary focus is on the steps we need to take to help slow the spread of COVID19 and to ensure the health and safety of everyone at Johns Hopkins.”

Some Baltimore-area workers said they are seeing drastic cuts in their hours that could result in them losing health benefits.

Amy Altvater, a 30-year-old banquet server at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, said she had been working up to six days a week up until a few weeks ago. But now event after event is being canceled and she’s down to working two days a week.

She and her husband, who also works at the hotel, are afraid they will lose health insurance because the company provides it only if employees work an average of 30 hours weekly.

"It’s terrifying to know that we could lose our health benefits over something we can’t even control,” she said.

The Marriott Waterfront did not respond to a request for comment.

Altvater, of Nottingham, said she lives paycheck to paycheck. She is worried about bills, but she’s most afraid of her 1-year-old daughter losing health coverage.

“She’s my life,” she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this article.

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