Workers most at risk from COVID-19 are on the front lines

Lazaro Gamio, The New York Times

Posted at Mar 18 2020 02:06 PM

Workers most at risk from COVID-19 are on the front lines 1
A Secret Service agent has her temperature checked before entering the White House on Monday, March, 16, 2020. The federal government on Monday, March 16, began directing its employees to work from home, after a week of confusion as some workers were told to report to the office even as public health officials implored employers to keep people at home. Doug Mills, The New York Times

As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the United States, people with jobs that put them in physical contact with others — including those at the front lines of the response — are at the greatest risk of becoming sick.

Health care workers are among those in the riskiest roles: They can encounter diseases and infections daily and typically work in proximity to one another and their patients. Many are already under quarantine because of exposure to the virus.

Personal care aides and home health aides who work with the elderly — the population most susceptible to the illness — are particularly vulnerable. At a nursing home in Washington state linked to at least 29 deaths as of Monday, at least 70 employees have fallen sick.

Emergency medical workers are also at high risk. Firefighters who responded to calls at the Washington nursing home are under extended quarantines. Paramedics across the country are taking extra precautions when responding to a possible coronavirus case.

The risk levels of various jobs were calculated using O*NET, a database maintained by the Department of Labor that describes various physical aspects of different occupations. The database assigns dozens of scores to each occupation for things like how often a telephone is used to how often a job requires you to bend your body. (Housekeepers rank highest in this metric.)

The risk of contracting the virus isn’t limited to those on the front lines. Teachers rate high both for exposure to illnesses and for their proximity to other people, and school systems around the country have closed.

Many people who do service jobs, like cashiers and fast-food workers, also face elevated risks. Walmart, Starbucks and Uber are among the many companies that have had workers fall ill.

As virus cases have grown, many businesses have begun closing offices and stores, and sending workers home to help slow the spread. While many companies have emergency leave policies in place to help protect their employees, there are large portions of the population that have few protections. Over the weekend, legislators passed a relief package that includes paid sick leave for workers affected by the coronavirus. But the benefits apply only to employees of companies with fewer than 500 employees, leaving millions of workers uncovered.

Workers in a number of professions at risk earn less than the national median wage. Many of these workers in low-paying jobs do not have paid sick leave, and many could still go to work sick to not lose income.

For some workers, being furloughed could mean layoffs. In the Seattle area, one small catering company was forced to let go nearly all of its employees because of cancellations from Big Tech clients.

A growing number of companies have also been asking employees to do their jobs from home. But that arrangement is largely available only to white-collar workers. For many occupations, working from home is simply not feasible, including those who are on the front lines of the response and those who are on the lower end of the economic scale.

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