Survey of Essential Workers by UMass Labor Center During COVID-19 Pandemic Shows Widespread Health and Safety Concerns

Half of survey respondents report feeling unsafe at work, low-wage workers are two-to-three times more likely than high-wage workers to lack access to basic safety measures
from left: Clare Hammonds, Jasmine Kerrissey
from left: Clare Hammonds, Jasmine Kerrissey

AMHERST, Mass. – Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Labor Center have released a new report providing some of the first data on the safety and security of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clare Hammonds and Jasmine Kerrissey conducted an online survey of over 1,600 essential workers in Western Massachusetts who were at work between April 17-24. As of late April, Massachusetts had the third-highest COVID-19 case count of all states, and two cities in Western Massachusetts ranked among the cities with the highest death rates per 1,000 population in the country – Springfield at No. 7 and Greenfield at No. 11, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

Hammonds and Kerrissey found that over half of all essential workers surveyed, 51%, report that they do not feel safe at work. Among respondents, 65% say they are unable to practice social distancing, 29% did not receive COVID-19 transmission training, 21% lack masks, 17% lack hand sanitizer, 8% lack regular hand washing opportunities and 16% were asked by their employers to not share their health information with coworkers.

The full report, “A Survey of Essential Workers’ Safety and Security During COVID-19,” is available online as part of the UMass Amherst Labor Center’s Working Paper Series.

“Essential workers sustain our ability to live during this crisis, going to work to provide critical food, shelter, transportation, health and safety, in a range of industries from healthcare and transportation to social services and public safety,” says Hammonds, professor of practice in the UMass Amherst Labor Center. “Essential workers risk exposure to COVID-19 without proper safety precautions. The findings of this research provide important insight into how to protect the workforce as we begin to re-open the economy.”

 The survey also found:

  • 67% of grocery and other retail workers report feeling unsafe at work, which is greater than healthcare workers (51%).
  • Low-wage workers (less than $20/hour), were two to three times more likely than high-wage workers (more than $40/hour) to lack access to basic safety measures, including masks, hand sanitizer, regular hand washing and training.
  • Substantial numbers of low-wage workers report that they have been unable to meet their family’s food needs (34%), housing needs (9%), and childcare needs (16%) in the last week.
  • 38% of Latino essential workers report food insecurity, compared to 21% of their white counterparts.
  • About half of the survey’s respondents (52%) report their work has become more intense.
  • Only 20% report receiving hazard pay.
  • 17% of essential workers lack paid sick leave, and roughly half report that they are unable to use paid time off if a family member falls ill.

“Health and safety protections, hazard pay, greater enforcement of municipal ordinances and protection of workers’ rights to self-organize are critical to improving worker safety,” says Kerrissey, assistant professor of sociology in the Labor Center.

I go to work six days a week,” one office cleaner told the researchers. “I go in after all employees have left to clean and disinfect the entire bank. I do six a night. When I am home I do not leave my house for anything. I get all food/supplies delivered. What would improve my situation would be to not be working so I can stay home, as I’m quite afraid to leave my house now. But that’s not financially possible.”

When asked about what they need, a convenience store worker said, “The part that makes me feel unsafe is the customers. People are only supposed to come out for essential things and that is not the case. People that are staying at home come in for a cup of coffee five times a day (make it at home) people do not know the difference between what they want and what they need… About 50% of guests have no concept of six feet. They think because our backs are to each other it’s fine… or just quickly getting a coffee it’s OK to be within 6 feet of each other.”

“People staying at home going to a hardware store and buying bird food is not really essential, and it’s putting us at risk,” said one hardware store worker. “Customers don’t seem to care about this virus that’s going around making us workers not feeling safe.”

A low-wage retail worker said, “We are risking infecting our family by working, and they don't give us anything extra in our paychecks to be able to buy more food, what we earn is for paying rent, electricity, insurance, and the rest is barely enough to buy food.”

The survey recruited participants using Facebook advertisements targeted to residents of Western Massachusetts, and respondents were invited to participate if they were working in-person (not remotely) as of April 15. Respondents then completed a 10-minute survey that asked a range of questions focused on health, safety and workers’ access to food, housing and childcare. Hammonds and Kerrissey have repeated the survey for the entire state of Massachusetts for the period of April 24-May 1, and the researchers say subsequent results will be used to understand how essential workers’ experiences change as the pandemic evolves.