The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare existing inequalities in workplace exposure to health risks and economic insecurity. Policy action is needed to protect workers’ health during the pandemic and to support worker empowerment and equitable opportunities in the future.
Work plays a key role in one’s experience and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately 50 million U.S. workers (34.5% of the workforce) are both front-line and essential workers, meaning they are employed at a business or establishment that “must stay open during a public health emergency.” Of these, people of color constitute approximately 40 percent of essential health care, grocery, convenience, and drug store workers.
Essential workers who face the greatest work-related risk of infection are disproportionately low-wage earners, women, and people of color. The reality for this group is that, due to financial necessity, when their employers are open for business, they must continue facing workplace exposure and so risk exposing their often-overcrowded households.
Low-wage workers are far more likely to work in front-line, essential jobs, but are the least able to afford unpaid time off from work when ill. While those employed in positions requiring in-person work face increased health risks, they also are most likely (1 in every 5 U.S. workers) to lack paid sick leave; have higher rates of untreated health conditions; and are working in unsafe environments. These groups have disproportionately experienced negative health and economic consequences of COVID-19.
The pandemic has exposed prepandemic inequalities that have existed in workplace conditions and employee benefits, with important health and economic consequences for some workers and their families. The brief explores how existing inequalities at work across race, gender, class, and occupation perpetuate further health, social, and economic inequities in the toll of COVID-19. The authors address remedies to improve conditions for the most vulnerable employees, both during the pandemic and in the future.
The often dire consequences of the pandemic are stratified along race, gender, class, and occupational lines. Women have been disproportionately affected by job loss and the caregiving burdens arising from school and care provider closures, with consequences in career opportunities, economic security, and mental health. The brief includes data from separate studies in California and Utah documenting significant disparities among Latino and non-White workers in COVID-19 infections in the workplace—including food service, agriculture, manufacturing, health care, grocery, and drug and convenience stores.
The pandemic has revealed stark inequities in workplace risk and access to protective policies. Even as vaccines give hope to impending herd immunity, inequality in workplace exposure to health risks and economic insecurity will likely endure. Governmental action is needed on several fronts, including empowering workers by raising wages; providing universal paid sick leave; allowing more remote work; and strengthening and enforcing workplace safety mandates via the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
Conditions brought about by the pandemic have created a new urgency and imperative to make risk reduction and protective policies universally and equitably available to workers across the occupational, demographic, and socioeconomic spectrum. Rather than returning to poor prepandemic standards in the service sector—the brief outlines policy recommendations that lay the groundwork for worker empowerment through better opportunities for equitable futures for all employees.
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