Uplifting the essential workforce | Mass public health blog


Written by Emily Sparer-Fine, Director of the Occupational Health and Surveillance Program

Essential workers encompass a wide variety of occupations, many of which are familiar to us: health workers, police, fire and other emergency personnel, transport workers and grocery workers, while other equally essential workers may be less familiar. such as food processing facilities workers or residential care personnel for mental health and substance abuse. The very nature of these occupations does not allow these people to work from home, so these workers are at increased risk of infection and transmission of the coronavirus to their families and communities. This was especially true in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, when personal protective equipment was in short supply and vaccines were not yet available.

Data obtained from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health COVID-19 Community Impact Survey (CCIS) indicated that work is one of the main reasons respondents said they were worried about contracting COVID-19. These data also showed that workers in certain industries were more likely to work outside the home, thus facing an increased risk of COVID-19. The percentage of respondents working outside the home varies by sector, from 94% among grocery workers to 15% in education, including colleges and universities. Even within some sectors, the percentage of those working outside the home varied by subgroup. In healthcare, 88% of nursing and residential facilities work outside the home, compared to 67% in hospitals and 52% in outpatient services.

With schools and day care centers closed or with reduced hours, the burden of childcare has fallen on many Commonwealth families. Nearly one in three of the employed respondents who shortened their hours or took vacation did so, at least in part, to take care of their children. Nearly one in five who lost their jobs cited the need to take care of children as a reason. Furthermore, this burden was not evenly distributed among the population. Women were twice as likely as men, and Hispanic respondents were nearly twice as likely as white respondents to reduce hours or leave work to care for children.

To address the public health care needs of essential workers, employer-provided prevention measures are an important method of combating exposure to COVID-19. Personal protective equipment, COVID safety training, and implementing social distancing at work are key measures to protect the essential workforce and the public interacting with them. Clearly, vaccinating essential workers will not only protect them, but the people they interact with and serve. You can do your part to support essential workers during the pandemic by continuing to wear a face mask and practice social distancing whenever you are away from home.


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