EPI: Who are Essential Workers?

Labor News

Reprinted from the Economic Policy Institute by Celine McNicholas and Margaret Poydock on March 19, 2021.

While the coronavirus pandemic has shut down much of the US economy, with over 33 million workers applying for unemployment insurance since March 15, millions of workers are still on the job providing essential services. Nearly every state governor has issued executive orders that outline industries deemed “essential” during the pandemic, which typically include health care, food service, and public transportation, among others. However, despite being categorized as essential, many workers in these industries are not receiving the most basic health and safety measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Essential workers are dying as a result. While the Trump administration has failed to provide essential workers basic protections, working people are taking action. Some are walking off the job in protest over unsafe conditions and demanding personal protective equipment (PPE), and unions are fighting to ensure workers are receiving adequate workplace protections.

What is essential work?

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed much about the nature of work in the US. As state executive orders defined “essential services,” attention was focused on the workers performing those services and the conditions under which they work. Using executive orders from California and Maryland as models, we identify below 12 “essential” industries that employ more than 55 million workers, and we detail the demographics, median wages, and union coverage rates for these workers. In doing this, we build on the excellent work by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in their report A Basic Demographic Profile of Workers in Frontline Industries. Key differences are that we use a different data set—the Current Population Survey (CPS) instead of the American Community Survey (ACS), so we could get union breakdowns—and we expand the definition of essential to include occupations found in California and Maryland’s executive orders. …

EPI 3/19

About Jeffrey Burman 861 Articles
Jeff Burman served on the Guild’s Board of Directors from 1992 to 2019. He is now retired. He can be reached at jeffrey.s.burman.57@gmail.com.