Additional reporting by Jose Martinez and Danny Laplaza

(Need to know more about coronavirus in New York? Sign up for THE CITY’s daily morning newsletter.)

The people on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic are helping New Yorkers get food, social and medical services, and ultimately get through this crisis.

Every day, more than one million New Yorkers — including doctors, nurses, postal workers, grocery store and pharmacy clerks, restaurant workers, transit workers, janitorial staff and government employees — are risking exposure to help keep the city running.

THE CITY has heard from hundreds of these essential workers, and we tackled some of their most common questions here.

If you have questions that aren’t covered below, let us know.

I’m an essential worker, what precautions should my boss be taking?

As of April 12, employers of essential workers must provide employees with face coverings, free of charge, per an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo’s 10-point safety policy requires businesses that offer essential services to “implement rules that help facilitate social distancing of at least six feet.”

The state cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for employers that you can read here.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released a lengthy guide on what workplaces should be doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

What should I do if I’m not provided with adequate personal protective equipment?

If your employer is not providing you a face covering, you can report them to the state Department of Labor.

If you have your own mask, wear it for your own safety, but your employer should not expect you to provide one for yourself.

What rights do I have at work?

Under a new law passed this month, New York State workers are legally protected against discrimination or retaliation by their employer for using sick leave or for requesting accommodations during this crisis. That means your boss can’t fire you if you miss work because you or a loved one is sick, or if you take leave because you are the primary caregiver for your child.

You may file a coronavirus-related complaint with the state Labor Department for any of the following reasons:

• You are being forced to work at a non-essential business

• You know about a business that is non-essential and is operating

• You are being forced to work for an essential business, but you do not perform an essential function

• Your employer is making you report to a worksite when your job could be performed from home

• Your employer is not following health and safety mandates

• You are particularly frightened because you are over 70 and/or have an underlying illness

• Your employer has failed to pay you wages owed for hours worked, earned sick pay or paid time off

• Your employer has threatened or fired you for reasons related to COVID-19

• You qualify for COVID-19 paid sick leave and your employer refuses to pay it

• Your employer is forcing you to work when you are sick

Construction workers make repairs on the Manhattan Bridge during the coronavirus outbreak. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The rules for how many paid sick leave days you can get are complicated, and depend on the size and type of your employer. Review those details here.

If you have more questions about paid sick leave, call 311 and say “Paid Safe and Sick Leave,” according to the Office of Emergency Management.

Other crisis-related updates to the city’s workplace laws can be found here, and the rights you always have as a worker in New York City are here.

What if I have an underlying health condition or fit into some other high-risk category?

You may be eligible for accommodations, which could include working from home, adjusting your schedule or other measures to ensure your safety.

According to the City Commission on Human Rights, if you have the virus, have been exposed to someone who has the virus or are recovering from the virus, you should be able to get accommodations from your employer. This also applies to workers with underlying health conditions and workers who are pregnant.

A FedEx worker delivers a package in the Upper East Side during the coronavirus outbreak. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Farrell Brody, a workers’ rights attorney at the nonprofit TakeRoot Justice, said ideally it should be pretty simple to make an arrangement with your employer under these new coronavirus-related guidelines.

“You just say, ‘I have an underlying condition, and I need this kind of accommodation,’” Brody said.

But if your employer refuses to budge, you may need to contact a lawyer. You can also file a complaint against your employer with the city for workplace discrimination, according to the Commission on Human Rights. Another option is to report your employer to the state Department of Labor.

If I quit my job because I feel unsafe, could I get unemployment?

If your employer refuses to give you sick leave, refuses to give you accommodations or fires you because you were directly impacted by COVID-19, then you would qualify for unemployment benefits that have expanded during the crisis.

It’s less clear, however, what the rules are if you quit because you’re scared of getting sick.

According to state Department of Labor spokesperson Deanna Cohen, individuals in this situation may qualify for unemployment benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, but help is not guaranteed.

She said those claims are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, to be determined with guidance provided under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Brody’s advice for anyone thinking about quitting because they feel unsafe is to document all conversations with your employer about your safety. Those records may help make your case when your unemployment claim is evaluated.

What if my work is not essential, but my employer is still requiring me to come in?

If your place of work is a “nonessential business,” yet your employer is still requiring you to come into work, or if you feel someone at your work has violated labor laws related to the coronavirus or the governor’s “PAUSE” order, you can file a complaint with the state’s Department of Labor.

Here is the state’s updated list of what jobs are considered essential.

How can I commute safely?

The more space you can leave between you and others, the better, noted Dr. Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Global Public Health at New York University.

Avoid crowded platforms and train cars. Try to modify your schedule and leave home a little earlier, though we’ve heard from many workers that this is not always possible.

The best thing you can do is wear a mask, whether it be a surgical mask, a homemade mask, or simply “taking your scarf and two hair bands and creating your own,” Ompad said. “Just make sure that there are multiple layers.”

MTA employees work near the City Hall station during the coronavirus epidemic, April 20, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

If you’re going to use gloves, don’t touch your face until you’ve taken your gloves off and washed your hands, said Ompad. NBC Washington invited a health care provider to demonstrate the proper way to use gloves in this video.

According to the MTA, high-touch surfaces in stations are being cleaned twice a day, and the entire fleet of train cars is being scrubbed in a 72-hour cycle.

Non-coronavirus related safety concerns are also a reality on mass transit. THE CITY reported that even as ridership has decreased due to the coronavirus, robberies have jumped 55% in March, compared to the same time last year. Transit officials plan to bring more security into the subway, but always be aware of your surroundings.

Someone at my job tested positive for COVID-19. What should I do?

If you have been exposed to someone with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 but you are not showing symptoms, the CDC recommends doing the following:

• Take your temperature before work

• Wear a face mask while at work

• Practice social distancing the best you can at work

• Stay home from work if you feel sick

• Avoid sharing headsets or other objects that touch the face

• Avoid congregating in crowded places, like a break room

Basically, you should do everything you’re probably already doing but be more “vigilant about it,” Ompad said.

I’m an essential worker but I’m not feeling well. What should I do?

“The first thing you should do, if you’re concerned,” Ompad said, “is not go to the hospital or clinic, but call your doctor.”

She said the main COVID-19 symptoms you should look out for are fever, dry cough and difficulty breathing. Other potential symptoms include loss of sense of smell and taste, and gastrointestinal problems.

Your doctor will help you determine how severe your symptoms are, and where you’ll be able to receive treatment.

Avoid clinics and hospitals if you can. New York City hospitals are overcrowded right now, so don’t risk exposure if you don’t need to. Your case may not be severe enough to merit hospitalization, and you might be able to receive treatment through telemedicine.

If you feel sick, Ompad also recommends lots of rest and fluids.

What about testing? Shouldn’t I get tested?

We don’t have universal access to testing right now in the United States.

In New York City, testing is still being prioritized for people who have moderate to severe symptoms and healthcare workers, so you may not receive a test even if you think you have coronavirus.

It’s best to call your doctor and figure out how severe your symptoms are. If you are concerned about returning to work, tell your doctor that you are an essential worker.

If I had COVID-19 or am pretty sure I had it, when can I go back to work?

THE CITY has reported about what to do when you recover from COVID-19, including guidance from public health experts.

The CDC recently changed its recommendations on when essential employees can return to work. Under old guidance, people were supposed to stay home for at least 14 days after being exposed. But under new guidance, workers can return to work if:

• You’ve had no fever for at least three days (72 hours) without taking any fever-reducing medicine and,

• You’ve seen a significant improvement respiratory symptoms (cough, shortness of breath) and,

• At least seven days have passed since you first experienced symptoms.

Two NYPD officers stand guard outside the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown, April 20, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

But Ompad said that just because you no longer have symptoms doesn’t mean you’re not contagious. Health experts are still figuring out how long people remain infectious after contracting the virus.

“The longer you wait, probably the better in terms of the likelihood that you are going to infect other people,” Ompad said.

But, deciding when to return to work can be complicated.

For some people, “the illness may be mild, but the economic impact is severe,” Ompad said.

For people who can only wait the minimum amount of time before going back to work, Ompad said to take all possible precautions (social distancing, hand washing, sanitizing etc.). She pointed out that essential workers are taking a risk by just showing up to work, and are not always paid in accordance with the dangers they face.

“This is making very clear how health disparities work,” Ompad said.

Working at this time is taking a toll on me. I could use someone to talk to. Where can I get support?

There are resources available and people who are eager and able to help you.

New York City is offering free mental health services through NYC Well.

In addition, a group of more than 3,000 volunteer mental, emotional and spiritual care providers are offering their services to essential workers and their families free of charge through the NYC COVID Care Network.

“For essential workers, so much is being asked of them,” said Jihan Bouraad, a member of the care network’s organizing team. “It can be really traumatic, and it can be really important to have someone to voice those concerns to and to find reassurance.”

Bellevue Hospital workers during the coronavirus outbreak, March 26, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Providers in the care network range from licensed therapists and social workers with different specialties to meditation teachers, reiki masters and other holistic healers. They are offering services in multiple languages.

If you are looking for support with your mental health, you can sign up to get connected to support from a professional in the NYC COVID Care Network here. One-on-one therapy or group options are available. You can be as specific as you want about the kinds of services that would be helpful to you.

“When you’re coming home from work, you may feel really alone or isolated in that experience,” Bouraad said. “To hear others talk about their experiences may offer you a chance to feel heard and know you’re not alone.”

Are there resources for my family while I’m at work?

The city Department of Education is providing childcare for first responders, healthcare workers and transit workers. You can find more information here.

Workers Need Childcare is a volunteer network helping connect essential workers to free or low-cost childcare.

What changes are essential workers hoping for?

Essential workers have been organizing and protesting both locally and across the country, at places such as Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods, for better working conditions. Some Trader Joe’s employees have petitioned for hazard pay, as have some medical residents and MTA workers, who have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 deaths.

On April 13, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) proposed a “bill of rights” for essential workers, urging Congress to include the workers in their next Coronavirus relief package. The 10-point list includes a call for “robust premium pay” for workers, health care security, and universal paid sick leave, and family and medical leave during the pandemic.

The proposed guidelines also include health and safety protections for workers, as well as protections for whistleblowers who witness and report unsafe conditions on the job.

You can read the full “bill of rights” list here.

(If you have questions that aren’t covered above, let us know.)

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.


You just finished reading another story from THE CITY.

We need your help to make THE CITY all it can be.

Please consider joining us as a member today.