Stressed, Unsafe, and Insecure: Essential Workers Need A New, New Deal

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Clare Hammonds 

Jasmine Kerrissey

Donald Tomaskovic-Devey

a collaboration with


Executive Summary

We surveyed over 2500 essential workers in Massachusetts from April 24 to May 1, 2020. Six weeks into the COVID-19 shutdown, we found that essential workers—our national heroes— faced widespread safety, stress, and family insecurity hardships. With some of the strongest labor protections in the country, Massachusetts is probably one of the best states to be an essential worker. The hardships we found for essential workers in Massachusetts are likely to be even worse elsewhere in the country. 

The majority of workers feel unsafe at work and are unable to practice social distancing. A substantial minority of essential workers lack access to basic safety equipment like hand sanitizer and supportive health related policies like paid time off when they or family members get sick. Stress has skyrocketed for most essential workers, linked to overwork, employer neglect of basic safety precautions, belligerent customers, and uncertainty about exposure. Large numbers experience food, childcare, and housing insecurities.

Low wage workers face the worst employer health and safety practices, making them fear for their lives and the health of their families. If they quit, they are not eligible for unemployment, they lose employer provided health insurance, and many have little in savings to survive without working. Even though they are still earning their paychecks, and in some cases topped off with hazard pay, the number of low wage workers reporting food, childcare, and housing insecurity is astronomically high. Low wage workers are disproportionately women and people of color, and it is these essential workers who shoulder the heaviest burden of the pandemic.

Key findings include:

  • The majority of essential workers do not feel safe at work (60%), are unable to practice social distancing (71%), and experience increased stress (86%).
  • Many employers do not provide proper safety gear. Some essential workers do not have access to masks (15%), hand sanitizer (15%), regular hand washing (10%), and roughly one in three have not received training on preventing COVID-19 transmission (31%).  
  • Grocery and retail workers face an additional problem: belligerent customers. Workers report rudeness and aggression from some customers when trying to implement social distancing and other COVID-19 store policies.
  • 43% of essential workers are low wage, earning less than $20/hour, and these workers are worse off in all dimensions than higher wage essential workers.
    • Low wage workers are 2 to 3 times less likely to have safety gear, paid sick days, or health insurance. African American and Latino low wage workers are the most at risk.
    • Low wage workers are also unable to consistently meet basic needs, including being 4 times more likely to face food insecurities and to have used a food bank in the past week.  These disturbing patterns are consistently worse for African American and Latino workers.

Our policy recommendations include:

  • Immediately, Massachusetts and the nation need clear and enforceable workplace safety requirements. Both corporate leadership and workers and their organizations need  to be part of COVID-19 safety planning, paid sick days, and hazard pay for essential workers.
  • Longer term we need a “New, New Deal”  in which minimum wages are at least $15/hour and pegged to inflation and all jobs must be covered by that minimum wage. Paid sick and family medical leave need to be generous and universal, unemployment insurance coverage rates need to rise to at least 60% of prior earnings, health insurance needs to be decoupled from employment, and families need to be made secure with a universal minimum incomes policy.

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