Living Paycheck-to-Paycheck in the Midst of COVID-19

William J. Wiggins Benefits, Compensation/Cash Money, COVID-19, Employee Engagement, Good HR

In the wake of an uncertain future for so many employees as a result of COVID-19 devastation, I encourage HR Leaders everywhere to be sensitive to its impact on our most vulnerable employee groups.

Witnessing the impact of the recent temporary business shutdowns and business closures, I am reminded of a previous employee during the great recession of 2007-2008. He was college-educated, energetic, prompt, and never a bad day. I was leaving work on my way to a happy hour of some sort when I spotted him behind a nearby establishment with what appeared to be a substantially loaded car, I called his name. Startled, he turned to face me, and between the look on his face and the contents of the car, I was able to deduce he was homeless. Not as a result of a pandemic, but as a result of the worst recession in decades, an unregulated housing market and a rapidly shrinking paycheck.

Wage inequality is alive and kicking
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of minimum and low wage earners are in fact working adults and may potentially make up a significant portion of your employee population. Pre-pandemic (during what some might consider the best of economic times) declining and stagnant wages have put even the essentials of life out of reach for many employees, particularly those that live and work in cities or regions where the cost of living and inflation are already outpacing annual merit and cost of living increases.

With the spread of COVID-19, it is currently estimated that 20 percent of the United States is under a Shelter in Place order, essentially rendering anyone who is unable to perform the duties of their job from home, unable to work. Perhaps It’s business as usual for the executive, coder, or software developer who is able to work from home with little disruption to income, benefits, or quality of life aside from Starbucks not being immediately accessible at lobby level.

The issues can be different for a low to moderately compensated administrative assistant, waitress or barista living with little to no disposable income or financial cushion, with limited support systems in the unlikely event of a worldwide viral outbreak; which is descript of many of our employees, particularly those holding service roles. No wonder they may not be as excited with the prospect of binge-watching Netflix, or, bonding with their pet while “sheltering in place” as one might think.

For the foreseeable future, unless your organization has a legal obligation to keep paying employees because of an employment contract, collective bargaining agreement, or a policy or practice that is legally binding or enforceable under state law, many impacted employees won’t be paid. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as it reads currently, employees who are not working are not entitled to the wages the FLSA requires, which sets in motion a series of events, the likes of which impact those that despite their best efforts, live paycheck to paycheck.

There is guidance on how how to support employees that are impacted by COVID-19 exposure with leave, time off, and reasonable accommodations; and for employees displaced by employers forced to shut down operations and thus, no work is available. Here are some ideas:

Create an employee fund. If your organization is fortunate enough to be operating in the black, consider giving back to your employee community. Establish a fund whereby employees in need can qualify for a maximum limit of financial help provided they meet established criteria.

• Establish a payroll advance program to receive a maximum number of payroll advances to help ease the burden of unforeseen emergencies.

• Partner with a comprehensive Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Traditionally, EAPs have been viewed as a resource for employee with problems such as alcoholism, depression or marital conflict. Today’s full-service EAPs, however, have an expanded role that includes services to discuss personal concerns including work and life transitions, legal and financial counseling, etc.

• Confirm how benefits will be handled by reviewing your group health plan document (or certificate of coverage if your plan is fully insured) to determine how long employees who are not actively working may remain covered by your group health plan. Once this period expires, active employee coverage must be terminated (unless the insurance carrier or self-funded plan sponsor otherwise agrees to temporarily waive applicable eligibility provisions). The insurance carrier providing the health coverage may voluntarily continue the coverage while the disaster is sorted out and until the company reopens its doors. More likely, the organization may make an arrangement with the insurance carrier providing health coverage to pay the employees’ share of premiums to keep coverage in place (at least temporarily) and possibly until they can reopen.

Most importantly, treat all of your employees as “essential staff” and consider that employees are impacted in by crisis in very different ways, based on their reality, not yours. The ability to view a crisis through the lens of others could make all the difference in how your organization recovers and take you from being a good organization to a great organization.