Late yesterday, AT&T became the first big internet service provider to suspend all broadband usage caps for its US customers. It's due to the global spread of the novel coronavirus strain SARS-CoV-2, which was recently termed a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
It's a big move from AT&T, but one that could dramatically ease the burden faced by millions of US citizens who are working from home to slow the spread of the dangerous flu virus.
It's only the latest example of how the virus is forcing the hand of big corporations. Events were hit hard, with a few of the tech world's biggest — South by Southwest, Mobile World Congress, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, and Google’s I/O conference — shutting down entirely, and losing hundreds of millions in the process.
In the short term, new regulations are moving rapidly at the county and state levels, and it seems likely that bigger, more sweeping regulations are on the horizon. But the long-term effects of the pandemic are yet to be seen. Once the worst is over, we may see a permanently changed landscape when it comes to worker's rights, with more common remote work policies, paid sick leave, and more.
1. Paid Sick Leave
Unlike some countries, the US currently has no federal law to establish a minimum paid leave policy across the nation. As a result, around 32 million workers have no sick days.
That's already a bit of a tragedy, but factor in coronavirus and it becomes a major public health issue: The novel flu strain is dangerous not because it kills rapidly, but because it spreads rapidly. If no one can afford to take time off from work to isolate themselves, the virus will spread faster than hospitals can keep up. And once hospitals reach capacity, coronavirus deaths will leap up along with deaths from heart attacks, car accidents, and other routine accidents that the hospitals can no longer effectively address.
Slowing the spread of the virus dramatically reduces its deadly impact, in other words. Yet many US companies' lack of sick leave is forcing workers to lose wages or even their jobs in order to do the right thing. For the 43% of US workers earning low wages, losing out on that income is out of the question.
Some major companies have abruptly updated their policies to compensate: Walmart, Apple, McDonald's and Olive Garden parent company Darden Restaurants are among the biggest names. The updates offer some much-needed goodwill in the short term, but they open the door for a better sick leave policy once the current crisis is over, as well.
Even in states with a paid sick leave law, the minimum number of days is far below the 14-day self-quarantine period the CDC recommends for anyone who might have contacted the virus. California's minimum leave is three days, for example. Now's the time to push for a stronger paid sick leave policy at a federal level: Coronavirus won't be the last pandemic we face.
2. Remote Working
A 2020 salary report from the tech job site Dice found that a huge majority of tech workers — 93% of them — would like to work remotely, at least some of the time. Currently, a much lower number, 60%, actually can.
With the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic, however, that changed. Even a survey from March 4-5, before the general public was taking coronavirus seriously, confirmed that the majority of employees at major tech companies were then working from home, from 76% of Amazon's employees to 80% of LinkedIn's to 81% of Microsoft's. Google was an outlier, at just 34% working from home, with contract workers faring worse than full-time employees.
In the week since that study, more companies are telling their workers to stay home: Amazon is now asking all employees to work remotely, while Twitter mandated all its workers stay remote indefinitely.
Is this crisis the tipping point that could lead to dramatically expanded work-from-home regulations at white collar jobs across the nation? Possibly. Remote work has been only growing in popularity, it's a boon for those with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and, with today's range of software services designed to streamline the process, it's more effective than ever.
3. Gig Economy Benefits
Many big names in the gig economy have updated their sick day policies to address coronavirus, including Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and Instacart. These moves follow a petition from a campaign to bring awareness to the challenges gig workers face, called “Gig Workers Rising.”
Uber is suspending drivers or riders exposed to coronavirus, dealing out 14 days of sick pay to anyone who loses work as a result. Unlike other sick leave policy revisions, the gig companies appear to be considering this tweak a limited-time offer: Doordash's 14 days of sick leave, for instance, will only be available for the 30 days after March 9.
Some delivery services are also rolling out features to let deliverers just leave packages at the door of their customers rather than risk a face-to-face meeting. Instacart and Postmates are among them and, across the pond, European food delivery startups Deliveroo and Glovo are adding contactless delivery as well.
4. Tech Supply Chain Troubles
One other ongoing concern: Supply chain disruptions, mostly driven by China's coronavirus response, due to that nation's dominant position in the manufacturing industry. A survey from the Institute for Supply Management found that manufacturers in China are operating at 50% capacity, with 56% of normal staff.
Nearly 75% of U.S. companies are facing disruptions as a result, while the UK is seeing trouble as well.
Amazon's warehouses are currently chugging along, even if the company's employees are staying in their homes. However, even part-time warehouse workers are eligible for two weeks sick leave, if they're diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. And in response to the pandemic, Amazon has suspended its warehouse tours in the US — although since the tours were first introduced to provide more transparency after news of poor working conditions, the news of their suspension isn't quite reassuring.
The Future's Murky
The news is moving fast. Like, really fast. Four major sports leagues suspended their seasons as I worked on this article.
One thing's clear amid the hamster-wheel news cycle: Coronavirus is bringing worker's rights issues to the forefront. But will they stick around once the pandemic is gone?
Tech companies everywhere have the chance to take meaningful steps towards helping society tackle the pandemic. We hope we'll continue to see positive news both in the short term, and perhaps more importantly, long after the final coronavirus patient has fully recovered.