Essential Workers Exposed to Virus at the Job Location

Introduction:  “Essential workers who continue to go to work while the virus is actively spreading in the population risk exposing themselves and their families to the virus. This reality has led to various proposals to provide these essential workers with “hazard pay”, as recently called for by Senator Mitt Romney, among others. The goal of this memo is to provide some data about who these workers are, which should inform any such policy discussions.”  Exposure on the Job, Melissa S. Kearney and Luke Pardoe The Brookings Institution May 7, 2020

Approach to Obtaining Data:  The authors mapped the Department of Homeland Security’s “List of Essential Jobs” to the Census Bureau’s industry maps and then using the American Time Survey Leave and Flexibility Module (ATUS) to determine the percentages of jobs capable of being performed from home.  The authors increased teachers and professors to 85% to comport with actual experience teaching online courses in the year 2020. 

Composition of Total Workforce Compared to Essential Workforce:  The total workforce at the time the above data was derived was 173.2 million in 2018.  Approximately 92 million workers earned their pay in “essential jobs.”  The demographic diversity of the “essential” workers looks a lot like the overall workforce, of which they were 56.4%.  Median earnings of essential workers were 5% greater; percent with B.A. degrees were identical as was the percentage of non-white workforce.  The gender difference was 2.5% fewer females among essential workers than in the overall workforce.  

Determining Work Categories that can be Performed at Home: The authors asked all non-self-employed wage and salary workers in the ATUS sample about their access to and use of paid and unpaid leave, job flexibility, and their work schedules. The sample size was 10,004 and the exact question asked was, “As part of your (main) job, can you work at home?”

Data Table provided in the Publication:  Three data tables were provided in the work.  First was a table from which Composition of Workforce (paragraph above) was derived. Two additional tables provided impressive public policy capabilities for guidance on the essential policy question set forth in the Introduction.  There were twenty-three “Essential” work categories” and for each the percentage of the workforce that could work from home was determined.  The Work Categories least able to be performed from home are often what one would intuit; Management, Farm/Fishing/Forestry, Transportation (trucking), and Production were very low home-content jobs.  Job duties that relied mainly on using computers had the highest percentages of work-from-home duties.  The ability to work from home was defined by the task, and equipment used.  Demographic information is irrelevant to the questions, but occupies a substantial space in the document.  The lowest skilled jobs, such as plant security, building maintenance, food preparation could be substituted with non-essential-industry labor.

The Authors’ Conclusions:  “There is a clear negative relationship between the share of essential workers in an occupation who are non-white and the share of essential workers in that occupation who are likely able to telework….For example, only 6.1 percent of workers in healthcare support occupations report being able to work from home; non-white workers comprise 54% of essential workers in that occupation.  At the other end of the spectrum, 72% of essential workers in legal occupations report being able to work from home, and only 27% of essential worker in that occupation are non-white.”    

Better Conclusions:  The questions to be answered at the outset are as follows.  What industries and their workforces are most essential to the nation, and how much of their workforce has to be exposed to a pandemic of infectious disease in order to maintain essential production?  The answer is defined by the categories of jobs and their irreplaceable skill levels.  This study shows the highest-skilled tasks are the categories that have the highest percentage of work that can be performed off-site (at home as specifically determined).  The race and gender of the workforce in a job category is irrelevant.  I find it typical of the Brookings Institution to advance that subject as of great importance in the preponderance of its publications.                                                                                                         May 8, 2020