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Coronavirus has everyone from Outback to Uber talking paid sick leave

If sick employees can’t stay home, they risk infecting their coworkers and everyone else. COVID-19 is forcing companies to grapple with the issue of giving sick employees paid time off.

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For the first time, an Uber driver can get paid sick time — but only because of the coronavirus.

As more people test positive for COVID-19 across the U.S., companies big and small are being forced to figure out how to handle a slew of workforce issues, from international travel to paid leave.

So on Tuesday, more than 40,000 people from businesses across the country tuned into a web conference hosted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The audience was 10 times larger than the society’s usual webcast.

One question sent to the panel was what a business should do if an hourly worker who has fallen ill won’t go home because they can’t afford to give up a paycheck.

“Consider paying them,” said Human Resource Management’s on-staff expert, Alex Alonso.

Related: How ready is Florida’s health department for the coronavirus?

The Centers for Disease Control has recommended businesses offer flexible sick pay as the country braces for the spread of the contagious disease. Yet there are no federal laws requiring paid sick time. And the types of hourly jobs that don’t come with paid time off — such as the food service and hospitality industries — are usually the ones where employees have the most contact with the public.

Alonso told businesses it makes sense to pay for sick time now. The price could be much steeper if one sick employee starts infecting coworkers — and even customers. How much will it cost if a firm’s entire workforce is out sick, or has to be quarantined, or is blamed for infecting others?

The virus has already forced some service-oriented companies to temporarily change their policies, while other companies have permanently changed how they handle paid sick time

Uber’s new policy for its ride share drivers, which are contract employees, is specific to the coronavirus. Drivers who have to self-isolate, are quarantined or actually contract coronavirus can now be compensated for missing work.

But they have to show the proper documentation — something the Centers for Disease Control says can be difficult to get if the health care system becomes overwhelmed.

Related: Coronavirus has Florida using Instacart like it’s hurricane season

At Instacart, its contract delivery drivers now have a similar coronavirus policy to that of Uber. But its part-time workers — those who are stationed at grocery stores to handle pick-up orders — have just started accruing paid sick time.

Olive Garden’s owner, Darden Foods, this week also rolled out a plan to offer accrued paid sick time. Spokesman Rich Jeffers said the Florida company’s policy was in the works before the coronavirus, though the disease accelerated its launch.

Tampa restaurant company Bloomin’ Brands, which owns Outback Steakhouse, has a long established accrued paid time-off policy. Hourly employees can earn up two weeks of paid time off per year.

Bloomin’ spokeswoman Cathie Koch said any employee with a personal illness, or who is quarantined as a result of the coronavirus, will receive sick pay regardless of how much time off they’ve accrued.

“This is something that is really going to impact all of society and have some long-term ramifications,” Dr. Jay Butler of the Centers for Disease Control said during Tuesday’s webcast.

If someone is just mildly ill, he said, this is not the time to “tough it out.”

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

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