In response to the COVID-19 pandemic when businesses and social gatherings were shut down or restricted, only “essential workers” were allowed to leave their homes and travel to work. Who turns out to be “essential”? Campbell Robertson and Robert Gebeloff of the New York Times report that an analysis of census data cross-referenced with federal government guidelines for essential workers shows that one in three jobs held by women in the United States was designated as essential—and women of color are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else. Specifically, roles deemed essential that are filled overwhelmingly by women are
- Drugstore pharmacists, pharmacy aides, and technicians
- Home health aides and personal care aides (eight out of ten are women)
- Nurses and nursing assistants (nine out of ten are women)
- Respiratory therapists
- Workers at grocery stores and fast food counters (more than two-thirds)
- Hospital orderlies
- Childcare workers for the children of other essential workers.
Robertson and Gebeloff note that the Department of Homeland Security deemed “essential infrastructure workers” as those jobs “too vital to be halted.” They also note that the people in these roles, whether we’re in a pandemic or not, are usually underpaid, undervalued, and unseen.
The authors report that men do make up 28 percent of the workers in jobs deemed essential, but they are only the majority of essential workers in law enforcement, transit, and public utilities. There are not as many of these jobs as those in the forefront of the pandemic—the healthcare industry. It is healthcare that has the most essential workers, and healthcare workers are women:
- There are 19 million healthcare workers nationwide, three times more than in agriculture, law enforcement, and package delivery combined.
- Four out of five healthcare workers are women.
- There are now four registered nurses for every police officer.
Robertson and Gebeloff point out that “being essential does not at all mean being well compensated or even noticed.” In fact, for the 5.8 million workers in essential healthcare jobs at the low-wage end of the wage scale, the pay is less than $30,000 per year. Half of these low-wage workers are people of color and 83 percent are women. These low-wage healthcare workers also face difficult working conditions that include
- Having no health insurance
- Having no protective equipment
- Having no affordable childcare
- Doing hard physical work and suffering a high rate of nonfatal injuries
Gene Sperling, writing for the New York Times, adds
- Forty-seven percent of nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides do not have any sick leave.
- Only 13 percent of female home care workers have any type of retirement plan.
- A quarter of home health aides taking care of our older relatives and children earn less than the minimum wage.
Sperling asks what it will take in this country to really value essential workers? He explains that “economic dignity means providing people with the capacity to care for family, pursue their potential and a sense of purpose, and contribute economically free from domination and humiliation.” Let’s be clear that the essential workers we are talking about here are primarily women and predominantly women of color. Clapping and banging pots to honor them during the pandemic does nothing to really address the structural disadvantages they face, such as lack of a decent minimum wage, lack of paid sick leave, lack of subsidized childcare, and lack of the right to organize for union protections. We can fix this. Many economists have laid out a pathway to a living wage and other protections, and it is not difficult to achieve. Let’s really honor our essential workers.
Photo by Francisco Venâncio on Unsplash