Coronavirus Quarantine: For Some, Missing Work Could Be Financially ‘Crushing'

FILE - In this Tuesday, March 3, 2020 file photo, shelves that held hand sanitizer and hand soap are mostly empty at a store in Jersey City, N.J.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Are you financially prepared if you can’t go to work?

As fears about the coronavirus mount, so do concerns about possible quarantines, office closures and school shutdowns.

“It’s always situations like this that make people scramble,” said certified financial planner Carolyn McClanahan, founder and director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida.

How financially devastating it may ultimately be depends on your situation.

“If they are living paycheck to paycheck and have no social support, it could be crushing,” said McClanahan, who began her career as a medical doctor and now focuses on health and financial issues.

“Hopefully creditors, employers and those with means will help those who aren’t prepared.”

There are now more than 111,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus globally, with at least 566 in the U.S.

As a result, thousands have been confined to their homes in the U.S. to slow the spread of the infection.

Being quarantined doesn’t necessarily mean the person is sick. It simply means they may have been exposed to the virus, so their movements are restricted.

If you aren’t isolated, you may still face issues such as your office or children’s school shutting its doors to help stop the virus from spreading. 

Generally, if you get paid time off from your employer or you can work from home, you shouldn’t have much of a financial issue unless you use up all of your days. If you are sick, you could apply for short-term disability if you are out long enough.

Some employers may already have an emergency leave policy, especially if they are used to dealing with things like snowstorms and hurricanes, said Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior partner at the consulting firm Mercer.

Check with your employer, since that policy isn’t a guarantee.

“Employers will be at their own individual discretion about whether they continue paying employees or not,” he said.

If you are a contract worker who only gets paid when you work and you can’t work remotely, you could find yourself in a bind. 

A few lost days of wages could mean not being able to buy food or pay rent, said Wendy Mariner, Edward R. Utley professor of health law at Boston University School of Public Health.

“People don’t necessarily have the resources to be able to comply with health recommendations, even when they want to,” she said.

“We’ll face this every few years as long as there are new viruses.”

What to do

The most important thing is to have an emergency fund so that you can help cover your expenses for the next month or so, especially if you aren’t going to be getting paid, said McClanahan, a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council.

“The best thing to do is always be prepared for bad things to happen, because one day they will,” she said.

“Don’t live preparing for doomsday but have an emergency fund, minimize your debt, take care of your health.”

However, a majority of Americans, 53%, don’t have an emergency fund, according to a 2020 survey by First National Bank of Omaha in Nebraska.

Start trying to put aside what you can now by cutting out any unnecessary expenses .

If you wind up out of work and the situation is “urgent,” you may have to live on your credit card for a bit, McClanahan conceded.

That’s “not a good option, but if you have no money and have to pay the bills, what else can you do?” she said.

Other sources of emergency income could come from a 401(k) loan, but borrowing against your retirement plan takes time and needs employer approval, so that could be problematic, she said.

If you have an IRA, you can take money out but you have a 60-day window to put it back in without being penalized. If you are under 59½, you’ll pay a 10% penalty plus income taxes.

If you are displaced from your home or hospitalized, set up automatic bill payments to take the pressure off, she suggests.

Mariner wants the government to step up and help those who don’t have the resources to miss work during times like this.

She suggests reaching out to your legislator to make it happen.

Those who can’t afford to miss work “want to be good citizens and we want to reward them for making sacrifices for the community’s benefit,” she said.

“Now they are simply making sacrifices.”

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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