After six months of economic lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19 and unprecedented job loss and unemployment, California has now entered what will likely be a prolonged period of experimentation with reopening the economy to greater and lesser degrees. The stakes could not be higher. California’s success in containing the coronavirus and saving lives will rest on our collective ability to sustain rigorous public health measures, supplement federal safety net programs to reduce economic pain, and establish and enforce robust workplace safety regulations.
From the standpoint of the labor market, two challenges stand out. First, the workplace has emerged as a central site of infection transmission. This has been true from the outset, with reports of infection outbreaks in essential workplaces such as health care facilities, grocery stores, warehouses, nursing homes, public transit, and meat packing plants, exacerbated by uneven or wholly absent measures to ensure worker safety. As more and more workers return to work, policymakers need to understand the full range of jobs at risk of infection.
Second, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating deep health and labor market inequalities for communities of color. As is true nationally, Black and Latino/a infection and mortality rates in California are significantly higher than White rates. Employment in high-risk jobs is undeniably a contributing factor to race-based differences in infection rates, even though insufficient data in the US means that researchers have not been able to directly establish the link so far.
In this research brief, we build on our previous research on essential workers, but use new data and broaden the analysis to the full range of occupations in the California labor market to help answer these questions: As the economy reopens, what levels of COVID-19 exposure risk will workers face when they return to their workplace? What are the demographic characteristics of these workers? And what jobs do they hold?
Unfortunately, direct data on infection rates at the occupational level are not available. We therefore analyze an occupation-level measure of the degree of physical proximity of workers to co-workers and customers at their jobs. We emphasize that physical proximity to others is only one factor that can affect a worker’s risk of exposure to the coronavirus in the workplace, especially given our rapidly evolving understanding of how the virus is transmitted. The actual risk of coronavirus exposure is also influenced by many other factors, such as workplace ventilation, cleaning protocols, provision of protective gear, public health measures, and employers’ leave policies and other actions to mitigate risk. That said, workers’ physical proximity to others is an important measure to examine in our ongoing attempts to better understand workplace exposure to the coronavirus.
Brief summary of key findings
- Under a scenario of full reopening, we estimate that about two-thirds of California’s workers would be employed in occupations entailing “moderately close” (e.g., arm’s length) to “very close” (e.g., near touching) physical proximity to other people. About a third would be employed in occupations entailing “slightly close” proximity to others (e.g., ranging from a shared office to a private office).
- These findings are best interpreted as relative estimates. Occupations requiring “slightly close” physical proximity entail some level of exposure risk for their workers, but likely less than those requiring “moderately close” and “very close” physical proximity.
- Not surprisingly, the majority of health care and personal care occupations entail “very close” proximity to others, as do teaching occupations. Occupations that primarily entail “moderately close” physical proximity include sales, social service, material moving, production, and transportation jobs. Many professional occupations, but also a number of manual occupations, primarily entail “slightly close” proximity to others.
- Occupational segregation by gender, race, and ethnicity in the labor market results in markedly different patterns of workplace physical proximity.
- Women of all races/ethnicities are significantly more likely than men to be employed in occupations with “very close” physical proximity to others–on the order of twice as likely. Men in every race/ethnic group are significantly more likely to be employed in occupations with “moderately close” proximity to others.
- However, there is additional variation by race and ethnicity; for example, Black and Latino/a workers of both genders have low rates of working in occupations entailing “slightly close” physical proximity to others, compared to White and Asian workers.
- Low-wage workers are more likely to be employed in occupations requiring “moderately close” and “very close” physical proximity to others, compared to higher-paid workers.
- Workers employed by state and local government, and nonprofits, are more likely to be employed in occupations entailing “very close” physical proximity to others, compared to private-sector workers.
- The large majority of workers in occupations that require either “moderately close” or “very close” physical proximity likely are not able to work remotely.
- Not surprisingly, front-line essential workers (as designated by state regulation) are overrepresented in occupations requiring “moderately close” and “very close” physical proximity, and most are likely unable to work remotely.