Mary Ellen Sanchez, a single mother of six in Fresno, works as an in-home supportive service provider for two women. One is paralyzed from the neck down, and the other one is in her late 60s.

Like over 400,000 in-home supportive service workers across the state represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 2015, she receives only two days of paid sick leave a year, whereas California mandates at least three days for full-time employees. And in the era of COVID-19, she’s on the front lines: the elderly and immunocompromised are most at-risk for contracting the novel coronavirus.

“I’ll stay home if I get sick,” she said. “But I don’t have any savings. I never thought something like this would happen.”

In California, the novel coronavirus has caused six deaths, with 335 confirmed cases. On Sunday, Fresno County declared a state of emergency after health officials confirmed a second case and await results from several dozen swabs.

State and federal officials are advising people to work from home if possible. Telecommuting is easy for many tech workers, engineers and financial professionals, but lacking that luxury, low-wage employees working high-contact jobs are worried about being laid off or running out of sick days.

Still, Sanchez isn’t letting worries of the virus take over.

“I don’t believe in stress. I leave that for the rich people,” Sanchez said. “I have six children and I’ve been a father and a mother to them all my life. I’m a survivor.”

Bars and restaurants shutter

On Sunday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called for the closure of all bars, wineries, night clubs and brewpubs. Restaurants are restricted to serving only half their maximum occupancy at a time to create space between diners.

Chuck Van Fleet, president at Vino Grille and Spirits, said restaurant workers across Fresno and California are facing unemployment.

“If we cut 50% of our seats, we have to cut staff as well,” Van Fleet said. “The overwhelming concern from all the restaurant owners is, how are we going to pay our workers and how are we going to take care of them? They’re the glue that holds restaurants together. We really need this Senate relief bill passed with guidelines and explanations. Everything’s a wait-and-see till that gets passed.”

If economic relief is offered, Van Fleet said, restaurant owners may be able to keep paying workers their hourly wages. But the biggest loss workers face is in tips, which won’t exist without customers.

California has made it so that people who had hours cut or became unemployed because of the virus can file for unemployment benefits. People who are ill or quarantined due to COVID-19 are also eligible for short-term disability. The Governor’s Executive Order waived the one-week unpaid waiting period for these benefits.

Grocery stores and pharmacies remain open, however, which worries some workers.

Danny Cervantez, 53, a meat cutter at SaveMart in Visalia, is scared of catching the virus from one of the hundreds of customers who come to his store.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 34-year career. There were so many people, hundreds of people, coming through that door with no masks, no gloves, coughing and sneezing. Emptying all the shelves,” Cervantez said. “And I’m like, oh my God. I don’t want to take that home to my family.”

He only has three days of paid sick leave a year, and already used two to take care of his father, who has congestive heart failure. He said he couldn’t afford to take off more than that.

“It would be devastating,” he said. “I’m just a regular blue collar worker. It would just hurt us all the way around.” 

Large employers respond

Walmart, the largest private employer in the U.S., announced on Tuesday that employees who test positive for the virus or are subject to mandatory quarantines would receive up to two weeks of pay, and that employees would not be penalized for unpaid absences through the end of April. They have also limited their store hours.

Uber, Lyft, Instacart and Amazon sent similar notices to their employees.

But for Melissa Love, who stocks and unloads shelves at a Walmart in Long Beach, that’s not enough. She had a runny nose, a fever and a cough last Wednesday but couldn’t afford to take unpaid time off, so she went to work anyway.

“It’s nothing major like the flu. I’m hoping its just a cold,” she said.

Love constantly washes her hands and keeps hand sanitizer in her bag, but it’s hard to protect herself when her coworkers or customers come to the store while sick.

Ketki Sheth, assistant professor of economics at UC Merced, said people who are financially vulnerable are not only having to come in to work, but also make much tougher decisions in the face of COVID-19.

“If you don’t have the social safety net, you might be more willing to take the risk because you don’t have the alternative (of staying home).”

Jessica Emigdio, a preschool teacher and City College student, said she had to take three days off work last week because she was sick. But she only had one paid sick day available, so once she pays rent, she will have nothing left over next month. And as schools shutter, her job may be at risk.

“Those two days really hurt me financially because I won’t have any money leftover. Just missing one day is very detrimental, and I ended up having to miss two,” she said. “It’s honestly scary.”

Lacking health care coverage makes the situation even more stressful. Emigdio makes $840 every two weeks, which is too much to qualify for MediCal, and doesn’t receive coverage through work. So if she gets sick again, the doctor’s bill will be entirely on her.

Scott Burris, a public health law professor at Temple University, worries that inequality will simply amplify the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re more unequal now than we were in the Gilded Age. And inequality brings with it that kind of corrosion of social strength because there are a lot of people who are just desperately poor; who don’t have health insurance, who are always teetering at the edge. So the more vulnerable people you have, the bigger of a shock this is. In Europe, in England, the social effects may be less disastrous because they have more of a social safety net. We lack that resilience.”

Cities consider temporary eviction bans

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand said during an emergency city council meeting Monday that people would not have to worry about being evicted over missed rent, but Fresno was not taking any local action on evictions.

“We understand that the state legislature and governor have approved a temporary ban on evictions for people impacted by the coronavirus. The important thing for the people of Fresno to know is that no one is going to be forced to move from their home during this crisis,” Brand said.

At the time of the city council meeting, there was still no word from Newsom or the state legislature on evictions. Brand then clarified Fresno would be waiting for the state to act.

“As we understand it, governor’s office and state legislatures are working on a moratorium. It’s either going to come as a bill or an executive order. I don’t know the timeline but you should assume action within the next couple of days,” city spokesman Mark Standriff wrote in a follow-up email.

SacramentoLos AngelesSan Francisco and San Jose are all moving forward on temporary eviction bans aimed at tenants who can’t make rent because of the coronavirus. Sacramento approved a $1 million economic relief package Friday for small local businesses including restaurants, retail and day care providers.

Fresno City Council President Miguel Arias said he would be in support of a temporary ban on evictions by the Fresno city council.

“The last thing I hope to see is a crisis of evictions across our cities because of this coronavirus and our inability to understand that our community is not made up of the tech industry or people that can telecommute,” he said. “Because the vast majority of our industry is service sector.”

The community group Faith in the Valley hopes an eviction moratorium in Fresno extends to foreclosures and current evictions cases.

“We want current court cases to be put on pause as well because the courtroom is very small and it’s always packed, like standing-room packed,” said Amber Crowell, a sociology professor at Fresno State and regional organizer for Faith in the Valley. “It’s really not safe for people to be coming to court.”

Manuela Tobias is a reporter with the Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Manuela is our former Housing Reporter whose stories focused on the political dynamics and economic and racial inequities that contribute to the housing crisis in California and its potential solutions....