We must help low-income Mainers, who are most impacted by coronavirus

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Lead maintenance worker Steve McClary disinfects a Metro bus in Portland on Tuesday. Buses are now being wiped down twice a day in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
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It is almost always the case that when disasters strike, people living in poverty are affected disproportionately, writes guest columnist Megan D. Hannan.
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It is almost always the case that when disasters strike, people living in poverty are affected disproportionately. A lack of resources limits both these families’ ability to prepare for emergencies and their ability to recover. As the coronavirus spreads, we can expect that low-income families in Maine will be hit especially hard. Local Community Action Agencies are working to help ease the burden, but our staff and volunteers are also susceptible to the virus and many of the accompanying effects.

There are many ways in which low-income people will be disproportionately impacted.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Low-income families are much more likely to be uninsured, therefore less likely to receive timely effective medical care. Without regular medical care, they are more likely to have underlying health conditions that may make them more susceptible to the worst effects of COVID-19, resulting in a higher mortality rate.

Without timely testing and treatment, they may unwittingly pass on the virus; lack of insurance is a health threat for everyone.

With little or no money to spare, low-income people are less able to stock up on food or medication in anticipation of quarantines or travel restrictions. At this point, we have all seen the empty shelves in our local grocery stores.

Since low-wage workers are disproportionately employed in industries that are most likely to experience some of the most severe effects of restrictions (restaurants and hotels, for example), these individuals are the most likely to experience un- or reduced employment resulting from the spread of the virus and measures to control it.

If workers are forced to stay away from work temporarily, low-wage jobs are the most likely to involve tasks that cannot be done at home. In fact, these jobs, which often involve care-giving and customer service, are more likely to involve direct human contact than most higher wage jobs. For those low-wage workers who do have jobs that are amenable to working remotely, they still may not be able to do so because they are less likely to have access to broadband internet connections.

Since low-wage jobs rarely include paid leave, these workers are faced with the prospect of long periods of lost income whether or not they actually contract the coronavirus.

[What you should know about social distancing, self-quarantine and self-isolation]

When workers count on Early Head Start, Head Start and/or other childcare solutions, any closing due to sick children or teachers means staying home from work, as well. Low-income workers are susceptible to work disruption from multiple angles.

In light of the outsized impact that low-income people will endure, the Maine Community Action Association urges employers and policymakers to consider these burdens and take steps to lessen the impact on low-income families. These steps should include the following:

Loosen Medicaid rules to extend health coverage so that low-income people can receive the testing and treatment they need. Congress has made Medicaid funding available and granted waivers to states to ensure that Medicaid covers the cost of treatment.

The state Medicaid/MaineCare office must continue to process all payments in a timely fashion so that providers are able to continue business.

Employers that are able should provide paid leave for workers unable to work due to illness, quarantine, or temporary closure of workplaces. The federal and state governments have provided funds to assist small employers make this leave available.

Utilities should give grace periods to people who cannot pay their bills due to unemployment; they must not cut off water, electricity, phone or other necessary services during this time. In some cases, internet services have been provided to families who do not have internet currently so that students can attend classes and/or work virtually.

Transportation services, many of which are provided by community action agencies, must continue so that people who must be present at work can be and people with medical appointments are able to attend them.

Maine’s Community Action Agencies are ready to help our families and communities through this pandemic, but as the first and last line of defense for low-income families, they must be considered essential services and be paid for those services without interruption. Non-payment would result in agencies shutting down, meaning children will go without regular, nutritious meals, people will go without medical care and communities will be left without life-saving services.

We are here to look after our neighbors and to lend a helping hand whenever possible. If we are all watching out for each other, and remembering to follow simple guidelines of hand washing, covering your cough and maintaining a bit of social distance, we hope to minimize the coronavirus’ impact on those who can least afford it.

Megan D. Hannan is executive director of Maine Community Action Association.

Watch: What you need to know about handwashing during coronavirus



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