The big idea
Black and Latino essential workers are more likely to feel stressed over job safety and security as well as family pressures than white workers, according to a recent survey of essential workers we conducted in Massachusetts, among them doctors, sanitation workers and grocery employees.
Specifically, 70% of Black workers and 78% who are Latino reported that they didn’t feel safe on the job, compared with 58% of white people.
This is not simply because Latino and Black workers were more likely to be in low-wage jobs. When we analyzed low-wage workers separately, Latino and Black people in this group were still far more likely to feel unsafe in the pandemic than their white counterparts.
We found that access to benefits on the job is critical to maintaining personal and family health. Across all of the dimensions we looked at, workers of color were less likely to have access to basic job benefits, including health insurance and paid sick leave, compared to white essential workers. Black and Latino respondents were also more likely to report that the intensity and stress of their work had accelerated since the pandemic began.
A Black woman working as a cashier at a grocery store said:
“It is really stressful. We are all working really hard to keep it together because we have families to provide for, and people think we are robots that are just there to get pay. We have to care for ourselves and for each and every client that comes in, making sure they keep the right distance and sometimes they don’t even listen to us.”
Stress also comes from experiences off the job. We found that Latino and Black essential workers were over 10% more likely to have experienced food, child care and housing insecurities compared with white essential workers.
Why it matters
All essential workers have good reason to feel unsafe doing their jobs in the middle of a pandemic, but it’s particularly bad for those who earn low wages, a higher percentage of whom are people of color.
Since Massachusetts has some of the strongest labor market protections in the United States, whatever is happening to essential workers there is most likely worse in many other states.
In our opinion, there must be universal solutions to combat racial inequalities and the risks associated with working during the pandemic.
Universal health care and expanded paid medical leave can help prevent COVID-19 from arriving and spreading at workplaces, while improving testing and treatment in Black and Latino communities is also important, as these communities face the highest risk of infection.
Individual workplaces can do their part to address racial inequities by providing all essential workers with substantial hazard pay, organizing the job site to allow for maximum social distancing and ensuring that personal protective equipment – like masks and hand sanitizer – is provided to all workers.
As states grapple with how to reopen workplaces safely, it is critical to establish health and workplace protections that help address longstanding racial inequities in the labor market.
How we do our work
Jasmine Kerrissey, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Labor Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Clare Hammonds, Professor of Practice and Graduate Program Director, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Donald T. Tomaskovic-Devey, Professor of Sociology; Director, Center for Employment Equity, University of Massachusetts Amherst