COVID-19 situation highlights unreliable hours, benefits and paid time off for Ohio workers

Customers look on as a Walmart cashier rings up their purchases at a Walmart store. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Along with state and local leaders and our fellow Ohioans, Ohio’s foodbanks are monitoring and mobilizing around the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. First and foremost, we want everyone in our state to know that our network is here for you. 

We are assessing our food sourcing and food distribution options, conferring with our emergency preparedness plans and partners and coordinating with our state agencies and federal policymakers to identify strategies for mitigating hunger during this pandemic.

Our network is experienced in emergency and disaster services and prepared to respond. With that said, this pandemic has the potential to be unlike other situations in both circumstances and scale. 

Like many other employers, our foodbanks are considering or undertaking options like telework, travel limitations and event cancellations where possible. But, just like those of our frontline workers and volunteers sorting food, making deliveries and serving meals, many workers across the country in sectors like hospitality, retail and restaurant services interact with the public every day. In fact, they depend on the public for their livelihoods.

When pundits and analysts discuss the reduction in air travel and elimination of domestic routes, we think of the shuttle and taxi drivers who lose business and tips. When state and local officials take the precautionary and necessary measure to cancel or limit attendance at events like the Arnold Sports Festival in the interest of public health, we think of the hotel staff and restaurant servers who have been counting on those wages.

What’s more, when we consider the advice from the CDC to workers to stay home and self-quarantine if flu-like symptoms are present, or the possibility that wider closures of businesses, schools or daycare centers could be necessary, we think of the 37 million American workers with no paid sick leave. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3 in 10 American workers cannot take time off when they’re sick without losing wages or even their jobs. That number is much higher for workers in sectors like food service (4 in 5) and personal care/home health (3 in 4). Even fewer can take paid time off when a child or family member is sick.

Additionally, the Federal Reserve estimates that nearly 4 in 10 American adults don’t have enough saved to cover a $400 emergency. 

Why did more than 1.6 million different Ohioans come to our food pantries for help with groceries last year? It’s not because they’re not working. 

It’s because they don’t get reliable hours, benefits or paid time off, and they don’t make enough to put anything away to help them cope when a kid is home sick or a car breaks down, or, in this case, a pandemic starts to put real pressure on local economies.

Our foodbanks are grateful to be a small part of a large and well-coordinated effort in our local communities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and respond to the fallout its spread creates. But like everyone else, we hope that this pandemic does little widespread damage. 

We hope, instead, that it serves only to draw critical attention to the unacceptable circumstances that so many hardworking Ohioans face in their jobs. Policymakers and employers: whether in the face of an illness we already know or a new virus we hope to avoid, no one should have to choose between going to work sick or losing the wages they need to put food on the table. 

For the latest information about COVID-19, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. If you need to locate help from your local foodbank, visit http://ohiofoodbanks.org/foodbanks/ or contact your local 2-1-1.

Joree Novotny
Joree has worked to represent the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, Ohio’s largest charitable response to hunger, and its 12 member foodbanks and 3,600 member agencies for nearly a decade. As director of external affairs, she leads the association’s efforts to better communicate, leverage resources and promote partnerships and policies that meet the needs of food insecure Ohioans today and eliminate their barriers to food security in the future. Joree is a proud AmeriCorps VISTA alum and a graduate of Youngstown State University.