San Francisco to Replace Wages for Low-Income, Undocumented Workers Who Have COVID-19

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Pedestrians walk in San Francisco's Mission District on April 23, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As San Francisco’s Latino population suffers a growing toll from COVID-19, the city plans to begin offering more than $1,200 in aid to residents unable to afford to self-isolate after testing positive, according to the mayor’s office.

The "Right to Recover" program would channel private donations to supply two weeks of minimum wage to San Franciscans who, due to immigration status or other reasons, lack access to benefits such as unemployment insurance or paid sick leave while they are asked to recover at home.

“When someone tests positive for COVID-19, we want them to be able to focus on getting the care they need and taking the necessary steps to slow the spread of the virus, not worrying about how they’ll pay their bills,” said Mayor London Breed in a statement.

City officials expect the program to be up and running in a few weeks. They aim to help more than 1,300 working San Franciscans with a $2 million initial contribution from the Give2SF COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

San Francisco was among the first U.S. cities to implement aggressive measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, but the rate of infections in the city disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities, say public health experts.

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Latinos represent only 15% of the city’s population, but infections among Latinos have grown to nearly half of all confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health. By comparison, non-Hispanic whites, about 40% of San Francisco’s population, represent only 15% of coronavirus cases.

A recent UCSF COVID-19 study pointed to a key reason low-income Latinos are at higher risk of contracting the virus: Many can’t work from home.

The study, which tested nearly 3,000 residents and workers in a heavily Latino area of the city’s Mission District, found most of those with an active infection earned less than $50,000 a year and had to venture outside their homes to earn income, sometimes providing essential services.

In addition, undocumented workers are not eligible for unemployment insurance or federal coronavirus stimulus checks, even if they contribute an estimated $3 billion per year in local and state taxes in California.

A significant number of those who tested positive in the UCSF study also reported they are not eligible for state and federal benefits, said Jon Jacobo, with the Latino Task Force for COVID-19, which worked with UCSF researchers to conduct the study.

“Some of the things that we heard were, ‘Well, you know, I'm asymptomatic. I feel fine. And if I test positive, that means I can't go to work for two weeks. And how am I going to pay the bills?’ Jacobo said.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes the Mission, initially proposed the Right to Recover wage replacement in early May as a response to the UCSF study findings.

“Low-wage workers deserve the opportunity to shelter in place and to quarantine if they are ill without the fear of losing income,” Ronen said in a statement. “It is in our collective best interest to make sure that financial vulnerabilities do not stand in the way of any worker who is sick from being able to rest and recover.”

In San Francisco, public health officials recommend those who test positive for COVID-19 self-isolate for at least 10 days after the first symptoms.

All workers in California, regardless of immigration status, have access to State Disability Insurance if they get sick. But the state may take weeks to process an application, which doesn’t immediately benefit people who are diagnosed with the coronavirus and are asked to self-isolate.

By law, employers in California are required to provide up to three days of paid sick leave, and in San Francisco, paid sick leave must cover up to nine days. At the federal level, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, approved by Congress in March, requires certain employers to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave to employees who are unable to work because they must quarantine.

But vulnerable workers, especially those who are undocumented, may be afraid of getting fired if they advocate for their rights, particularly as millions lose jobs during the current economic crisis, said Kim Ouillette, an attorney with the nonprofit Legal Aid at Work.

“If employees start making a big deal about their rights, they can get terminated. This is a difficult employment environment,” Ouillette said, adding that government agencies charged with enforcing worker protections, such as the state California Labor Commissioner's Office, can take one or two years to resolve an employee complaint.

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“Any local and state efforts to provide individuals with income support in a timely manner when they're sick is essential to California's recovery,” Ouillette said.

In San Francisco, after a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, the Department of Public Health interviews them. Once Right to Recover is launched, the department will connect eligible individuals to the program and other resources, such as free hotel rooms where they can safely isolate, according to city officials.

Another goal of the program is to increase testing for COVID-19 among essential workers.

“Many low-wage workers who depend on their wages to survive are reluctant to be tested for COVID-19 because of fear of losing wages,” said Cristina Padilla, a spokesperson with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “Essential workers need to know that if they volunteer to be tested, and test positive, that they will be able to safely quarantine for their own protection and the protection of the public at large.”