Essential workers: economic and health vulnerability

Los Angeles Times

We live in a very unequal society in the United States. Many have pointed this out for years and the COVID-19 pandemic has starkly illustrated this inequality. The poor, the sick, the old, the young, those who are “different”, those with little political power, and on and on … these people have borne the brunt for decades. These people have seen little benefit from economic gains and are the first to suffer from economic losses. Decreasing lifespan, decreasing opportunities, institutionalized violence, injustice.

COVID-19 has shown a harsh light on the inequality, and research confirms:

McCormack G, Avery C, Spitzer AK, Chandra A. (2020). Economic Vulnerability of Households With Essential Workers. JAMA. Published online June 18, 2020. [PDF]

The label of “essential worker” reflects society’s needs but does not mean that society has compensated those workers for additional risks incurred on the job during the current pandemic. When an essential worker contracts severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), they pose a risk to the other members of their household. These members may be elderly or lack health insurance, and the household may have limited resources to care for a sick family member.

We defined 3 risk categories to estimate the economic vulnerability of households: (1) low household income (below $40 000); (2) uninsurance (at least 1 person in the household is uninsured); and (3) household presence of 1 or more persons aged 65 years or older. We categorized households facing at least 2 of these 3 risks to be high risk and examined the prevalence of risk in households with essential workers by industry.

Essential workers were estimated to comprise 40% of the US adult population. Of essential workers, 46% were female, 14% were black, 17% were Hispanic, 11% were uninsured, and 8% were 65 years or older. Eight of the 21 industry categories from the ACS accounted for 73% of essential workers. Health care accounted for a larger proportion (15%) of essential workers than any other industry: 65% of health care workers held essential jobs. Black individuals were overrepresented in several essential industries, notably transportation (23%), public administration (18%), and health care (18%).

A total of 1 410 976 households were represented in the 2018 ACS with an estimated 51% of those households including an essential worker … 25% of essential workers were estimated to have low household income, 18% to live in a household with at least 1 uninsured person, and 18% to live with someone 65 years or older. We estimated that 48% of essential workers lived in a household with at least 1 risk and 13% of essential workers lived in high-risk households.

Using 2018 data, an estimated 40% of US adults would be categorized as essential workers during the current pandemic, with 13% living in high-risk households.”

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