Understanding the COVID-19 Workplace: Evidence From a Survey of Essential Workers

June 4, 2020

Key findings:

  • Essential workers report being very concerned about the risk of infection at their jobs with Black essential workers nearly twice as likely as white essential workers to express concern about infection risk.
  • Many essential workers report balancing concerns about infection against earnings and economic security. Workers facing financial hardship, Black and Latinx workers, and younger workers are especially likely to say they would still go to work with a fever.
  • Many employers appear to be providing additional protective equipment and testing to their workers in response to the pandemic. Over 70 percent of essential workers report receiving resources like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and soap and having a place to wash their hands while on the job. Over 90 percent of essential workers report receiving at least one of these resources from their employers.
  • Across a variety of outcomes, we find that union members report better COVID-19 workplace practices and outcomes than nonmembers.
  • Workers who report higher levels of concern about COVID-19 infection risk, as well as workers in regions with high COVID-19 case rates, are more likely to report willingness to take part in workplace collective action.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created enormous challenges for the American workforce. Tens of millions of workers are now out of work, and workers who are still employed must navigate their jobs while trying to avoid the risk of infecting themselves and their communities. Employers do not appear to be providing essential workers increased pay or paid sick leave, suggesting the need for policy interventions to raise labor standards.

In “Understanding the COVID-19 Workplace: Evidence From a Survey of Essential Workers, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Suresh Naidu, Adam Reich, and Patrick Youngblood worked with YouGov Blue to field a national sample of essential workers in order to paint a clearer picture of how workers in frontline occupations are experiencing the crisis and how their experiences might inform the responses of policymakers and labor organizations.

Their findings highlight the importance of worker voice to the health and safety of workers and their communities and suggest that the pandemic may be shifting workers’ understanding of the benefits of workplace collective action. Ultimately, the survey presents new avenues of opportunity for labor organization and action—and for reforms to labor and employment law.