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Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

When the coronavirus forced businesses to tell their employees not to work, most kept paying at least some of those workers’ wages — but not their health insurance premiums.

Why it matters: Millions of people have lost their income and their health care coverage at the same time during this pandemic, which could stick them with unaffordable medical bills or cause them to put off care they need.

The big picture: Nationwide, 52% of businesses told employees not to work at some point this year because of the pandemic, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • In the spring, for example, many restaurants and retail stores didn’t fire or lay off their workers, but employees were simply unable to go to work because those businesses were closed or operating with only a skeletal staff.

By the numbers: Of the companies that told some employees not to work, most — 51% — kept paying at least some of those workers.

  • But only 42% of those businesses kept paying those workers’ health insurance premiums, according to the BLS data.
  • The industries hit hardest by the economic downturn — the ones where workers were most likely to have their hours cut or eliminated — were the least likely to keep paying health care costs.
  • In the finance and insurance industries, 62% of companies kept paying the insurance premiums of workers who were kept off the job. But in the hospitality and food service industries, it was just 23%.

Between the lines: The average employer-based health care plan in the U.S. costs about $7,000 per year for an individual and $20,000 for a family. Employers, not workers, pay the bulk of those premiums.

  • That’s a big, fixed expense that simply may not be sustainable for many employers in this economy — even ones that could afford to keep some of their workers’ wages flowing.

What’s next: Medicaid will pick up many of the poorest newly uninsured Americans, and plans sold through the Affordable Care Act will be an option for others.

  • But workers who fall through the cracks of that patchwork system could be stuck with wildly unaffordable medical bills if they’re managing a chronic illness or get sick before they find a new job.

The bottom line: Tying insurance coverage to employment leaves people in a lurch whenever the economy turns south.

Go deeper

Updated Oct 21, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Pfizer booster has 95.6% efficacy, large study shows — FDA authorizes mix-and-match for booster shots — J&J expects $2.5 billion of vaccine sales this year.
  2. Health: Cases and deaths keep falling — White House unveils plan to "quickly" vaccinate kids ages 5-11 — The global coronavirus vaccine gap — Gates Foundation to send $120 million of antiviral pills to lower-income countries.
  3. Politics: Reports: Brazil leader to be accused of crimes against humanity over COVID — Puerto Rico leads U.S. vaccination rates — Hawaii invites fully vaccinated travelers to return from Nov. 1.
  4. Education: Education secretary reveals limits to Biden’s mask push on states — LA extends deadline for school employee vaccinations — Parent sues Wisconsin school district after child tests positive.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Jan 30, 2021 - World

Science helps New Zealand avoid another coronavirus lockdown

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) visits a lab at Auckland University in December. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand has avoided locking down for a second time over COVID-19 community cases because of a swift, science-led response.

Why it matters: The Health Ministry said in an email to Axios Friday there's "no evidence of community transmission" despite three people testing positive after leaving managed hotel isolation. That means Kiwis can continue to visit bars, restaurants and events as much of the world remains on lockdown.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

WHO says most pregnant women can now receive coronavirus vaccine

A doctor administering Moderna's coronavirus vaccine at a university hospital in Essen, Germany, on Jan. 18. Photo: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

The World Health Organization has altered its guidance for pregnant women who wish to receive the coronavirus vaccine, saying now that those at high risk of exposure to the COVID-19 or who have comorbidities that increase their risk of severe disease, may be vaccinated.

Why it matters: The WHO drew backlash for its previous guidance that did not recommend pregnant women be inoculated with vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, even though data indicated that pregnancy increased the risk of developing severe illness from the virus.