Vulnerable workers face COVID-19 risk

October 5, 2020 | Jake Ellison
A sign on a door reads "No Mask No Entry" as a worker in a face mask cleans a counter in the background.

Women, workers of color filling most ‘high-hazard/low-reward’ jobs in Washington, says a new report from DEOHS and our partners


New research finds that many workers in precarious jobs face a high risk of exposure to disease and economic stress. Photo: Spurekar/Flickr.

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A new report about workplace health and safety in Washington during the pandemic finds that women hold two-thirds of the jobs considered both precarious and at high risk for exposure to COVID-19.

“There are a lot of workers in Washington who are at increased risk for exposure to COVID-19 and still going to work,” said Marissa Baker, the report’s co-author and assistant professor in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.

“Those workers tend to also be workers who have a lack of workplace protections and are either women or workers of color,” Baker said.

“We really need to ensure that there are targeted policies or regulations to help these workers, especially since we now know who they are and what occupations and industries they fall into.”

Safety and economic risks

Baker and co-author David West, an analyst at the Washington Labor Education and Research Center, looked at data about Washington workers, including demographics, working conditions, wages and benefits, and risks of exposure to disease.

“The big takeaway from our research is how particularly women are working under precarious conditions — a large number of women are both facing safety risks at high-hazard jobs and are economically at risk,” West said.

900,000 Washington workers in precarious jobs

Researchers identified 55 of the 694 occupations on which they had data as both precarious — facing economic and health care stress—and at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Out of a total Washington workforce of 3.3 million workers, some 900,000 workers fill positions in these 55 occupations. These workers, 70% of them in what are considered essential jobs, were not only mostly female, but also disproportionately workers of color.

“Even though this has been a devastating time for the American workforce,” Baker said, “we can harness this moment and make big structural changes that can forever improve the relationship between work and health.”


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