UW researcher identifies workers most harmed by economic disruption due to COVID-19

Only about 25% of the U.S. workforce — some 35.6 million people — are in jobs that can easily be done at home, a University of Washington researcher has determined, as these are the positions in which using a computer is important but interacting with the public is not. These jobs are typically in highly-paid occupational sectors such finance, administration, management, computers, engineering and technology.

Consequently ­— with orders to close businesses and demands that employees work from home growing daily to combat the spread of COVID-19 — the 75% of workers who cannot work from home are not only at risk of increased exposure to disease but also other job disruptions such as layoffs, furloughs or hours reductions, said UW researcher Marissa Baker.

The nearly 20% of U.S. workers, or 28.2 million, in occupations where interacting with the public is important, but using a computer is not — such as in food service, retail, personal services and transportation operators — are especially vulnerable to job loss or hours reductions during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Baker, an assistant professor in the UW School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.

“Many of these workers are susceptible to layoffs or cuts in hours as the public is instructed to stay home, social distance, avoid non-essential outings and limit contact with other people as much as possible,” said Baker. “All workplaces are going to face disruptions during a public health emergency such as COVID-19, but the workers that cannot work from home, don’t perform what are considered essential services, and tend to be lower paid could be hit the hardest.”

While the federal stimulus package that passed the U.S. Senate and is expected to be voted on by the House on Friday, March 27, does include protections for these workers, policymakers going forward will need to make sure vulnerable workers are able to return to work and not face lasting health or job effects due to COVID-19, Baker said.

“These are workers that need to be highlighted in conversations around social safety nets and need to be guaranteed access to things like paid sick leave, paid family leave, unemployment benefits for both lost jobs and reduced hours and guaranteed pay even if hours are reduced,” Baker added.

Baker used Bureau of Labor Statistics data characterizing the importance of interacting with the public and the importance of using a computer at work to understand which workers would experience work disruptions due to COVID-19. 

“The public is being told to stay home and work, but these workers can’t perform their work duties from home. As a double whammy, the more the public stays home, the more likely many of these workers will face hours reductions or lose their jobs, since they rely on the public to keep working,” said Baker. “We need to ensure these workers are protected both at work and also in the event they can no longer go to work. It is important they don’t fall between the cracks.”

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For more information, contact Baker at bakermg@uw.edu or 206-616-4709

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