• Hilary Kim

The Unrecognized Risks of Low-Income Essential Workers



When people think of essential workers, many think of first responders and other employees in the medical field. However, there are many essential workers outside the medical field putting themselves at risk and not receiving appropriate recognition. Yes, essential workers like warehouse employees, food delivery drivers, and cashiers do not necessarily take the same risks as healthcare workers, since they are not constantly exposed to those who definitively have coronavirus. Nonetheless, they are at significant risk in ways we do not realize, that deserve public appreciation, and that should warrant public concern about income inequality.

In reality, most essential industries are not in healthcare. The most popular non-healthcare essential sectors include manufacturing, construction, retail trade, and accommodation and food services. Workers in these essential industries tend to be low-income, and thus face the many consequences associated with being low-income.

First, low-income workers suffer exceptionally from coronavirus because they are more susceptible to comorbid conditions that worsen its effects. According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, obesity, type two diabetes, and hypertension complicate coronavirus. The same health conditions are particularly prevalent among those with low-income. For example, The Journal of the American Heart Association includes that “hypertension is more common and more poorly controlled among lower versus higher SES [socioeconomic status] groups.” Additionally, BMC Health Services Research states that “the lowest income quintiles hav[e] the highest rates of [type two] diabetes.” This comes to show that comorbid conditions are especially prevalent among low-income workers, which magnifies the negative effects of COVID-19. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention reports that 78% of those with coronavirus and one or more underlying health conditions get admitted to the intensive care unit. These comorbid conditions evidently cause low-income workers to be hit harder by the disease.

The value of these low-income essential workers in our lives is no less than anyone else’s, but they don’t need to attend work during this global pandemic. Now more than ever, we must consider how income inequality influences the health hazards workers face. The risk these workers encounter increase inordinately in the workplace. In addition to them being more likely to have comorbid conditions with coronavirus, they also face the disproportionate risk of coworkers practicing presenteeism, or attending work despite illness. Many employers refuse their workers paid sick leave, which encourages workers who need money to practice presenteeism. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lower wage workers are less likely to have paid sick leave. In fact, “[p]aid sick leave was available to 31 percent of workers with an average wage in the lowest 10 percent and to 92 percent of workers with an average wage in the highest 10 percent.” This suggests that low-income workers are more likely to attend work while sick, but at their coworkers’ expense. This issue is compounded with the fact that many low-income workers lack health insurance, and therefore are less likely to seek medical treatment, even for chronic health conditions (the same ones comorbid with coronavirus). Denied paid sick leave, millions of low-income workers practice presenteeism, exposing their coworkers to an illness for which they, similarly, may forgo medical treatment. These problems have a common origin: labor exploitation, and in particular, employers’ failure to provide essential benefits, such as paid sick leave.

During this global pandemic, the world is facing an unprecedented health crisis and workers continue to lack paid sick leave. Policy developments such as The Families First Coronavirus Response Act mandates employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide their workers with paid sick leave. Since large companies exceed 500 employees nationwide, they are not legally required to offer paid sick leave, and many do not. Major food chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and major hotel chains like Holiday Inn have not yet provided their workers with extended paid sick leave, despite numerous companies across the nation now doing so.

Moreover, the large companies that willingly offer paid sick leave made this privilege contingent upon a coronavirus diagnosis or official quarantine recommendation, which are incredibly difficult to come by. There is a shortage for COVID-19 testing, and too many of the available tests seem to be going to the wealthy, like predominantly asymptomatic NBA players. Hence, even if formally permitted, most low-income essential workers still lack paid sick leave despite this pandemic and its accommodating policies, and thus are still incentivized to practice presenteeism. This unfairly subjects other low-income essential workers to coronavirus, who are likely immunocompromised as well.

Additionally, the nature of many low-income essential jobs does not allow workers to practice social distancing, or staying six feet apart from others to minimize the spread of coronavirus. Several post office workers, for example, claimed it was impossible to social distance considering the number of workers, the size of the building, and the nature of their job, such as lifting heavy packages shoulder-to-shoulder. Their work environment and job nature further jeopardize their health, but they cannot afford to stay home.

It is important to sympathize with these low-income essential workers facing excessive risks as they try to make a living. Their inherent, systematic, and disproportionate disadvantages coalesce in their workplace, which they have no choice but to attend. These workers deserve both public acknowledgement of the injustices they face and efforts to provide them with hope during these trying times as the first steps toward substantial change.