Identifying workers hit hardest by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, closed businesses

Monday, April 13, 2020

A researcher from the University of Washington School of Public Health has found that 75% of the United States workforce are in jobs that cannot be easily performed from home. With many cities and states ordering businesses to close and residents to stay at home to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), workers who cannot work from home are not only at risk of increased exposure to disease but also other job disruptions such as layoffs, furloughs or hours reductions.

Dr. Marissa Baker
Dr. Marissa Baker

“Many of these workers are susceptible to layoffs or cuts in hours as the public is instructed to stay home, social distance, avoid non-essential outings and limit contact with other people as much as possible,” said Marissa Baker, assistant professor in the School’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.

“All workplaces are going to face disruptions during a public health emergency such as COVID-19, but the workers that cannot work from home, don’t perform what are considered essential services, and tend to be lower paid could be hit the hardest.”

Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that characterized the importance of both interacting with the public and using a computer at work, Baker was able to determine which workers would experience work disruptions due to COVID-19.

Approximately 28.2 million people work in areas such as retail, food service and transportation where contact with people is an essential part of the job, but they have few or no tasks—such as working on a computer—that can be done from home.

“The public is being told to stay home and work, but these workers can’t perform their work duties from home. As a double whammy, the more the public stays home, the more likely many of these workers will face hours reductions or lose their jobs, since they rely on the public to keep working,” said Baker. “We need to ensure these workers are protected both at work and also in the event they can no longer go to work. It is important they don’t fall between the cracks.”

According to Baker, only 25% of U.S. workers hold positions where most of their work can be done from home on a computer and does not require them to interact with the public. However, these occupations tend to be in finance, technology, engineering, management and other high-paying fields. Baker notes that while the federal stimulus package does include protections for workers who are impacted by the stay-at-home orders, policymakers going forward will need to make sure vulnerable workers are able to return to work and not face lasting negative health or job effects due to COVID-19.

“These are workers that need to be highlighted in conversations around social safety nets and need to be guaranteed access to things like paid sick leave, paid family leave, unemployment benefits for both lost jobs and reduced hours and guaranteed pay even if hours are reduced,” Baker said.

Read the story from UW News.