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UW study: COVID-19 widens disparity between top quarter of US workforce and the rest

Nearly 110 million people in the U.S., representing three-quarters of the workforce, have jobs that can’t be done remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a University of Washington study.

The study found that these workers, which are also the lowest-paid in the country, are not only put at greater risk of coronavirus infection during the course of their work, but they are also more vulnerable to pandemic-related job disruptions and associated mental illnesses.

Layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours are more likely to hit this group of 108 million workers, which can cause stress, anxiety and other mental health issue, said the study’s author Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.

“This pandemic has really exacerbated existing vulnerabilities in American society, with workers most affected by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders being significantly lower paid and now also at increased risk for mental health outcomes associated with job insecurity and displacement, in addition to increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 if they keep going to work,” Baker said.

Unlike the top 25 percent of American workers, or about 36 million people, who have computer-centric jobs that require little public interaction, many of the 108 million workers whose jobs aren’t as reliant on computers and tend to involve more public contact face greater coronavirus-related risks.

Baker’s study broke down the U.S. workforce into four occupational groupings based on how much they rely on computers and how much they interact with the public.

  • Work that relies on the use of computers but not as much on interaction with the public — jobs in business and finance, software development, architecture, engineering and the sciences, for instance — made up 25% of the workforce or 35.6 million workers. These workers had a median income of nearly $63,000.
  • Work that relies on both interaction with the public and computer use — such as positions in management, healthcare, policing and education, most classified as essential during the pandemic — comprised 36.4% of the workforce or 52.7 million workers. These workers had a median income of roughly $57,000.
  • Jobs in which interaction with the public and computer use are not important — construction, maintenance, production, farming or forestry — are 20.1% of the workforce or 29 million workers who make a median wage of $40,000.
  • Lastly, jobs in which computer work is not important but interacting with the public is — retail, food and beauty services, protective services and delivery of goods — were 18.9% of the workforce, or 27.4 million workers, with a median income of $32,000.

In general, each of the four groups has been affected in different ways during the shutdown phase of the pandemic, and each will experience varying impacts once the economy reopens, Baker said. Those in the first group have been and will continue to be largely shielded from both contracting the virus and losing their jobs.

Some people in the second group, like healthcare workers, security guards or bus drivers, may face layoffs once the economy reopens as employers adjust to new economic realities.

Those in the third group represent a bright spot in the study’s findings: Workers in construction, manufacturing, production or freight transport will likely return to the job site as the economy reopens.

However, the approximately 27 million people in the fourth group face a grim outlook. Many of them were laid off during the pandemic and may not have jobs to return to, exacerbating their job disruption and its associated mental health illnesses, Baker said. The lucky few in this group who do manage to get back to work face greater exposure to coronavirus.

“These results underscore the important role that work plays in public health. Workplace policies and practices enacted during a pandemic event or other public health emergency should aim to establish and maintain secure employment and living wages for all workers and consider both physical and mental health outcomes, even after the emergency subsides,” Baker said.

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