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‘I Don’t Know How I’m Going to Pay Rent Next Month’

Service workers in cafes, restaurants and hotels are among the first economic victims of the coronavirus epidemic. So are many of their employers. As more of these businesses shut down, millions of people will need help to survive — help that reflects the reality of low-wage and hourly work. Vulnerable workers are demanding an inclusive, accessible program of paid sick days, wage replacement and access to health care as part of any disaster response.

Meeting these needs seems daunting: How can we weave an economic safety net while addressing a public health crisis? But examples from other nations, and our own recent history, show it can be done....

There is an American precedent for even more inclusive disaster relief. Nearly two decades ago, after the September 11 attacks, the United States developed an exemplary program to provide free, specialized health care to firefighters and other emergency medical workers who reported respiratory ailments, skin and gastrointestinal problems, mental health conditions and, later, life-threatening cancers. But almost as soon as the program got going, cleaning workers employed by private contractors and residents of New York neighborhoods affected by falling debris came forward with nearly identical complaints. The majority of these workers and residents were low income, and many were undocumented. 

Disaster aid often fails to account for such vulnerable populations, but in the case of the post-9/11 health program, a broad community campaign of immigrant worker centers, labor unions and public health and environmental justice groups fought successfully to secure equal health care access. The World Trade Center Environmental Health Center was expanded to provide physical and mental health care not only to emergency medical workers but also to privately employed cleanup workers and downtown residents. (I provided legal and technical assistance on this collaboration until 2012.)

Read entire article at New York Times