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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 care workers, police, fire and other emergency personnel, transit workers and grocery workers, while other workers equally essential may be less familiar – such as food processing plant workers or mental health and substance abuse residential care staff. The very nature of these occupations does not allow these individuals to work from home, so these workers are at greater risk of infection and of transmitting coronavirus to their families and communities. This was especially true in the early stages of the COVID-19 epidemic when personal protective equipment was in short supply and no vaccines were yet available.

NPHW alternate imageData obtained from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 Community Impact Survey (CCIS) indicated that work was a top reason why respondents noted they were worried about getting COVID-19. This data also showed that workers in select industries were more likely to work outside the home, thus facing increased COVID-19 risk. The percentage of survey respondents working outside the home varied by industry ranging from 94% among grocery workers to 15% in education, including colleges and universities. Even within certain industries, the percentage who worked outside the home varied by subgroup. In healthcare 88% in nursing and residential care facilities worked outside the home, compared to 67% in hospitals and 52% in ambulatory services.

With schools and daycares closed or on reduced hours, the childcare burden fell on many families in the Commonwealth. Nearly one in three of employed respondents who reduced their hours or took leave did so, at least in part, to take care of children. Nearly one in five who lost their jobs cited needing to take care of children as a reason. Further, this burden was not evenly distributed among the population. Women were twice as likely as men, and Hispanic survey respondents were almost twice as likely as White respondents to reduce their hours or quit their jobs to take care of children.

To address the public health care needs of essential workers, employer-provided prevention measures are an important method of combating COVID-19 exposure.  Personal protective equipment, COVID safety training, and implementation of social distancing at work are key measures to protect the essential work force and the public that interacts with them.  Clearly, vaccination of essential workers will protect not only 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 mask and practice social distancing whenever you’re outside your home.

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