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Stuck at home but can’t do your job remotely? Here’s what to expect

A construction worker on break near the Empire State Building in New York , NY, USA on Friday, March 27, 2020. On Friday morning, NYC Mayor ordered the closure of all non-essential construction sites as a measure to intensify efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
A construction worker on break near the Empire State Building in New York , NY, USA on Friday, March 27, 2020. On Friday morning, NYC Mayor ordered the closure of all non-essential construction sites as a measure to intensify efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images) (Sipa USA)

Today more than 225 million Americans are under orders to stay at home to help slow the spread of coronavirus. While many may be able to continue doing their jobs from home, a large number can't. That's because their job is done on-site at a business that has been deemed "nonessential" in the fight against the pandemic.

Think of anyone who works in customer-facing roles (e.g., in retail, hospitality, travel, or even bank branches that close). Or anyone who works with their hands, such as manufacturing plant workers, massage therapists, housekeepers or home health care aides. Or anyone who can't do their job when business comes to a standstill, like sales agents.

How many employers are able to continue paying those idled employees -- and for how long -- is fast-changing.

As things unfolded in early March, a survey of 805 mostly mid- to large-sized employers by consulting firm Willis Towers Watson found a majority said they were still going to pay their idled hourly employees who couldn't work from home. But most -- especially retailers -- only promised to do so for 10 to 15 days at 100% of their workers' current base rate.

"This week, the question is, 'Now what?'" said Adrienne Altman, a Willis Towers Watson's managing director.

One well known company has already answered: Macy's announced on Monday it would now furlough most of its employees, keeping on just a skeleton crew.

Other employers are likely to announce their own decisions soon.

Given the uncertainty about how long stay-at-home orders will be in place and how long the economy is going to be a mess, employers are having to make hard calls on the fly.

Many are trying to figure out if they can afford to keep their idled workers on payroll -- even at partial pay. Or if they should furlough them with an implicit promise to bring them back when things improve. Or if they should lay them off altogether.

Furloughing can have benefits implications, said Mark Neuberger, at attorney in Foley & Lardner's labor practice. Depending on how a company's health plan is written, he said, the employer may continue subsidizing furloughed workers' health insurance premiums, whereas that might not be allowed for laid-off workers.

Employers also are factoring into their decisions the new $2 trillion federal economic aid package that was signed into law last Friday.

Several measures in the package seek to support workers and their employers as the country fights the pandemic.

For example, one measure offers any worker laid off because of the coronavirus an additional $600 per week on top of their state unemployment benefit for four months. So a company that wants to temporarily cut costs might consider whether an employee wouldn't be better off on unemployment in the short-run.

For instance, in Florida, the average weekly unemployment benefit is $275. Under the new aid package that becomes $875 per week, which is better than the $600 a week that a worker making $15 an hour is paid.

"If you're a low wage worker you could be doing a lot better," said Chris O'Leary, a senior economist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

In instances where an employer has the means to continue paying its idled workers but at a reduced rate -- say, only half of what they normally are paid while working -- the employee still may apply for partial unemployment benefits to cover some of their lost income, said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.