COVID-19: Policy, Poverty and Indiana Workers

Whether they contract the virus or not, low-income Hoosiers will be hurt by COVID-19.
Blog Post
March 11, 2020

“We have our first confirmed case.”

COVID-19 shorthand is being spoken in news feeds, Starbucks lines, and airport lounges all over America this week. Indiana has now had several confirmed diagnoses and is grappling with school corporation shutdowns, college closures, and work-from-home orders. Like all of you, I’m just trying to keep up with the information flow. So I read the news, listen to scientists, and--defying all conventional wisdom--read the comments.

I find that, for better or for worse, Facebook comment threads are the epicenter for your average residents’ anxieties and questions about exceptional moments, whether elections, natural disasters, or pandemics. Poking around after a major school corporation west of Indianapolis was the first to close, I saw a little bit of everything: grateful (or worried or annoyed) parents, media skeptics, people who like to use the work “snowflake” a lot. But I also saw folks worrying aloud about food-insecure students. Childcare. Lack of access to technology for e-learning days. The unattainable idea of stocking up on medication or food. Unpaid leave. What these intrepid commenters know--not because a think tank or news outlet tells them but because they see it in classrooms or on the block--is that protecting yourself economically and physically has become a privilege not extended to the most vulnerable Americans.

And so with the spread of COVID-19 low-income Hoosier workers find themselves with heightened vulnerability with real health and economic outcomes. But why?

They are already struggling.

  • 25% of Hoosier workers make less than $20,000 a year.
  • In Indiana, 10% of children live in concentrated poverty (KIDS Count). This doesn’t account for the precarity of children living in families that are barely making ends meet in a state where about 34% of residents are low income.
  • In 2017, median household income in Indiana trailed the nation: $54,951 for white families, $42,995 for Hispanic families, and $32,163 for Black families (IBRC). Aggregated data for 2019 indicate that median income has ticked up but is still well below national average.
  • Childcare for a toddler is more expensive in Indiana than in any other Midwestern state. (IN Institute for Working Families)

They work in “no show, no pay” jobs and stand to lose money...quickly.

  • Only 30% of the lowest earners have paid sick leave. (BLS)
  • Only 58% of workers in service occupations have sick leave. (BLS)
  • In the Indianapolis metro alone, we have:
    • 50,000 retail sales workers and cashiers for whom one week off could mean a loss of $525 per person.
    • 53,091 food prep and related service workers for whom one week off could mean a $320 loss. (New America/Burning Glass)
  • The lowest paid healthcare workers in Indianapolis--obviously essential to the COVID-19 response and often working with those most vulnerable to the virus--could lose as much $290 per week. (New America/Burning Glass)

Everyday is a food emergency.

  • 887,000 Hoosiers are food insecure.
  • Feeding America estimates that we’d need $396,443,000 to cover the shortfall keeping our neighbors from getting enough to eat.

Seeing a doctor isn’t always an option...or a good experience.

  • In 2018, 8.3% of Hoosiers were uninsured.
  • Multiple researchers confirm racial disparities between the treatment of Black patients vs. their white counterparts across the U.S. (NYT).
  • In spite of a federal mandate, there are massive gaps in translator services at American hospitals, complicating the treatment of patients who speak little English.

Taking leave could mean leaving a job:

  • 75% of service workers do not have short-term disability coverage. (IN Institute for Working Families)
  • While Governor Holcomb signed an order providing paid parental leave for state employees, Indiana law does not require private employers to provide sick leave, paid or unpaid.
  • Yes, companies of 50 employees or more must comply with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) but to be eligible, an employee must be with the company for at least one year, have worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous year, and work at a location with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. Working for small companies, working multiple jobs, working 24 hours a week, and moving or changing jobs all complicate access to leave.

Social distancing is a privilege.

  • While there are many good reasons to take public transportation, households in poverty have lower vehicle ownership rates. This means they may not be able to avoid shared and crowded transportation.
  • Access to information, remote work, and online learning varies widely, with unequal network speed (New America) and no way to telecommute for most service workers.
  • As customers distance themselves from local businesses or cancel events, service and hospitality workers at the lowest end of the pay and seniority scales are already finding their shifts cut.

None of the above likely surprises any Americans living precariously close to the financial edge, that daily reality ungoverned by statistics on tight labor markets and stock portfolios. In fact, the tightrope that low-income Americans will have to walk thanks to COVID-19 is the same tightrope, just over a new chasm. A year from now, when we look back on this chaotic moment, if we haven’t addressed the core inequities faced by those making less than a livable wage and those without access to paid leave...well, then, we’re the sick ones.

You can learn more about New America's work on paid family and medical leave here.

Related Topics
Redesigning Work