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Essential Workers and COVID-19

photo - Grocery Store Worker

California is grappling with the dual threats of a public health crisis caused by the coronavirus and the additional economic fallout of necessary social distancing measures.  In the past week, we have seen unemployment claims skyrocket and policymakers forge supports for workers and businesses.

Meanwhile, there is a workforce that is tackling the public health crisis, keeping the economy going, and supporting Californians who are sheltering in place. While this essential workforce supports the state’s health and basic economic needs, many of these workers are not well equipped to weather the economic challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.

We estimate that in a typical year, roughly one-third to one-half of California’s labor force is employed in essential occupations. Essential workers fulfill a wide variety of roles in our economy, including in health care services, energy provision, food service, agriculture, and transportation. Some workers in these areas may be seeing layoffs and hours reductions depending on their industry, firm, or region.

figure - California’s Essential Workforce Spans a Wide Range of Occupational Areas

Some essential jobs are obvious, as they are on the front lines of the public health crisis. For example, registered nurses (the largest occupation within the healthcare practitioner category) are essential, have two- or four-year degrees (68% have a college degree, according to our analysis of American Community Survey data), and earn relatively high wages ($52.32 an hour).

However, workers outside of the health care sector are also on the front lines. Personal care aides—those who assist the elderly and others in their homes or personal care facilities—are the single largest essential job category. These workers earn $13.50 an hour on average and 85% do not have a college degree.

Differences in skills and pay translate into notable differences in economic well-being for these workers and their families. A slightly higher share of essential workers than non-essential workers are poor or nearly poor, according to the California Poverty Measure: 14% of essential workers live in poor families compared to 11% of non-essential workers (the comparable estimates for near poverty are 19% and 14%, respectively).

figure - Most Essential Occupations Are Low-Wage and Have a High Share of Workers Below or Near the Poverty Line

Grocery store cashiers, store clerks, farmworkers, and delivery and truck drivers make up sizeable shares of the essential workforce.  Given the low hourly wage rates for these workers, some may face hardships in caring for children or family members with schools and care facilities shuttered.

In addition, many essential workers experience the cost and risk of maintaining their own health while interacting with the public. In low wage essential jobs, access to health benefits and paid sick leave is limited, even in normal times. During the COVID-19 crisis, expanding access to personal protective gear could reduce the health risks among workers whose job requires some level of contact with the public.

Mandated lockdowns are now slated to continue through at least May 1 in some parts of the state and  may last even longer. Ensuring the ability of essential workers to continue their jobs safely and effectively will be crucial over the coming months. As policymakers implement support for unemployed Californians, it is important that they also consider ways to assist and protect the many essential workers on the front lines. Paid sick leave, adequate health coverage, income support, access to child care, and sufficient personal protective gear should all be part of the policy discussion.

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