Health and Wellness

Could you get paid to quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic? Some local governments are already doing it


Quarantining for 14 days for those who been exposed to Covid-19 is key to stopping the spread of the virus. And some places in the United States and around the world are paying people to stay home. 

San Francisco began implementing a wage-replacement program back in May that provides eligible workers who have Covid-19 with two weeks of wage replacement, or $1,285. (That's more than the $1,200 CARES Act payment some people received from the federal government in the spring.) The so-called "isolation payments" were funded with $2 million from San Francisco's charity relief fund, Give2SF.

In Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay Area, people in certain high-risk neighborhoods who test positive for Covid-19 but don't receive unemployment benefits or paid sick leave can receive a one-time $1,250 stipend to self-isolate for two weeks. The county's board of supervisors allocated $10 million to go toward covering approximately 7,500 people. 

"The county understands that sheltering in place while diagnosed with Covid-19 should not be a privilege to only those who can afford it," Alameda County administrator Susan Muranishi said in a press release.

In Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu introduced a motion in late July that would provide a minimum of two weeks' pay to workers who test positive for Covid-19 and quarantine, regardless of the individual's immigration status, housing status or criminal record.

And it's not just in the U.S.

As of Tuesday, low-income workers in the U.K. who cannot work from home are eligible for a £130 ($172) payout if they are required to self-isolate due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Family members, as well as other people who have had contact with an infected person can also receive a stipend of £182 ($243) for 14 days of quarantining.

Victoria, Australia provides a similar $450 ($332 USD) compensation for residents, which provides financial support while they self-isolate to wait for the results of a Covid-19. 

While there is no hard data, there is evidence that these payments encourage people to follow quarantine. 

It's generally believed that a 90% compliance rate is necessary in order for a quarantine to be "effective," Mark A. Rothstein, director of the Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, who studies income replacement programs, tells CNBC Make It. In an April 2020 survey of Israeli adults, 94% of people said that they would comply with a quarantine if they were receiving state-sponsored compensation for lost wages. Only 57% of people said they would follow a two-week quarantine without payment.

While there are various reasons why some people might not comply with a quarantine even if they were paid for it, "the lack of payment is certainly going to increase the likelihood that the quarantine will be unsuccessful," Rothstein says.

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, isolation payments have shown to be beneficial.

For example, during the 2003 SARS outbreak, which hit Toronto hard, the Ontario government created the "SARS Assistance Program" to guarantee $500 CAD ($544.06 USD today with inflation) compensation to any employee forced to take unpaid leave from work as a result of SARS. The program expanded compensation coverage to 845 citizens.

The idea behind such payments is to provide a financial safety net for people who've been exposed to Covid-19 to be absent from work for the required 14-day incubation period.

This also allows people to do their part in stopping the spread of the virus. "Too many families are faced with an impossible choice: Work and feed your family or stay at home and be safe," Ryu tells CNBC Make It. 

"Providing a level of income replacement to people in quarantine is humane, but it's also an attempt to ensure the success of quarantine," Rothstein says.

Americans are believed to be less inclined to follow to voluntary or compulsory quarantine measures, "based on our individualists and libertarian traditions," Rothstein wrote in a 2007 paper. Further, Americans may also be less likely to agree to using prevention measures such as contact-tracing apps or remote medical monitoring.

The best way to encourage Americans to cooperate with quarantines is to guarantee job security and provide income replacement, according to Rothstein.

While it's impossible to say whether payment alone would lead to fewer infections, "it is clear that payments have increased quarantine compliance rates, which is likely to reduce the rate of infections," Rothstein says.  

As of April 17, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided federally mandated paid sick leave for up to two weeks for workers coping with coronavirus-related issues. However, the rule excludes private businesses with 500 or more employees, which includes many healthcare workers. And two weeks may not be enough time for someone to fully recover from Covid-19, which means workers are at risk of going to work sick or carrying the Covid-19 virus. 

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's proposed plan for re-opening the economy includes guaranteeing paid leave for all workers who get sick with Covid-19, "for as long as they need to recover and complete quarantine-leave paid for by the federal government with a guarantee that workers can return to their jobs," according to his campaign website

However the chances of the U.S. introducing a federal isolation payment plan are "pretty remote," says Rothstein.

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