How essential workers are weathering coronavirus : The Indicator from Planet Money Essential workers put themselves at risk of infection every day to keep the economy running. But many aren't well protected or compensated for the dangerous work they do.
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Essential Workers

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Essential Workers

Essential Workers

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Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Minerva Alers is a security guard at a hospital in Manhattan, N.Y. She says the emergency room there unsurprisingly has been full of COVID-19 patients and that working there can be heartbreaking and also kind of scary.

MINERVA ALERS: I was telling someone the other day - I said, it's like this invisible cloak of darkness. Like - I mean, I work at night, so it's dark. But now it's just, like, this heaviness in the air.

GARCIA: Minerva's 53. She's Puerto Rican, works night shifts. And she commutes to the hospital in Manhattan from her house in the Bronx. And she's well aware that working in a New York City hospital right now elevates the risk that she herself will catch COVID-19.

ALERS: I worry about that every day. You know, I have an 87-year-old mom in my house that had lung cancer, and now she suffers COPD. I get scared every day that I'm going to come and make her sick.

GARCIA: Minerva's job involves keeping the other people who work in the hospital safe. And as a security guard, she sometimes has to try to calm someone down if they're being rude or aggressive. And doing that when the aggressive person might also have a highly contagious disease means her work is just unavoidably more dangerous now.

ALERS: And what I mean by dangerous - 'cause sometimes people have COVID, and they're compliant. And sometimes they're just not. So now you have this person that's big and just wants to be combative, and you have to figure out a safe way of dealing with that.

GARCIA: Right now, tens of millions of workers throughout the country have been forced to work from home to help slow the spread of the virus. And tens of millions more have lost their jobs and are now suffering through unemployment. But there's also this other class of workers - workers like Minerva - who have kept on working even when they have to leave their homes to do their jobs, even when their jobs bring a higher risk of catching the virus because their jobs have been deemed essential jobs by their state or local governments. On today's show, we look at who does these essential jobs, and we discuss what the rest of us can do for them - for people like Minerva who are taking such big risks on our behalf.

Adie Tomer is a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. He and his colleague Joseph Kane recently finished an analysis of essential workers throughout the country, and Adie wanted to know more about these workers so that he could answer a few questions.

ADIE TOMER: How do we make sure they're physically protected? How do we make sure they have the income to kind of compensate them for this kind of hazardous work? And how do we protect their families, too, who they have to come home to at the end of the night? - or not - even if they're, you know, single households - right? - the people they live near.

GARCIA: The Department of Homeland Security offers guidance on which workers can be classified as essential workers, and then state and local governments can use that guidance and apply it to people who work in their states and cities. Workers who are considered essential are expected to keep working. Some of those workers who are categorized as essential are kind of obvious - nurses, doctors, hospital workers, pharmacists. Others do jobs that you might not have thought were essential before coronavirus, but it's clear that they are essential now, Adie says.

TOMER: So it's those folks in Amazon-style warehouse facilities, wholesale clothing and food distribution. Of course, the gig-economy-style delivery drivers - they're putting themselves at risk every day.

GARCIA: Also essential - people who work on farms and in grocery stores, workers in parts of the utility sectors who keep our drinking water safe and repair the roads and who make sure that your wireless Internet is up and running. Mail carriers, firefighters, bus drivers, trash collectors - all essential. And there's so many more.

But here's the thing. The guidance from the Department of Homeland Security - it does not actually include a specific definition of what work is essential. It basically just tries to identify workers in those industries that are necessary for society to keep functioning while it is fighting the coronavirus pandemic. And that vagueness - it makes it tough to estimate just how many essential workers there actually are, Adie says. So you end up with this really wide range.

TOMER: On those definitions, you could split them anywhere from about 49 million workers to over 90 million workers. So no matter how you cut it, it's a huge tranche of the labor force. But we're talking, you know, differences of maybe 30- to 60% of the U.S. labor force.

GARCIA: Now, there are some workers included in this range, like teachers and people who work in finance, who are considered essential but can mostly work from home now. But Adie says if you just look at those workers who have to leave their homes and are therefore putting themselves at a higher risk of getting the virus, then it's closer to the lower end of the range. So that's roughly 49 million workers, or about 30% percent of the labor force - still a lot of people. And here's what Adie's analysis revealed about those workers.

TOMER: Many of those same workers who still need to go to work are relatively lower-paid and less likely to be in - have - carry health insurance, if to say nothing of potentially life insurance. So those are really our target workers that we want to investigate from a policy perspective to make sure that they're protected and that their households or family members are protected, too.

GARCIA: For example, he says, look at packers. These are the workers who put together packages in warehouses packages full of the stuff that you might have ordered online to be delivered to your house.

TOMER: There's over 650,000 of those workers across the country. We believe that many of them are still working. Their median hourly pay is only $11.82, still frequently close to others on the job site, have many face-to-face interactions. And as we've seen through the protests outside of many of the national companies in this area, like Amazon, they don't have health insurance and oftentimes don't even have sick leave - or certainly didn't have sick leave till the coronavirus was kind of broken out.

GARCIA: Minerva Alers, the hospital security guard - she says that ever since COVID-19 started spreading across New York City, she has received one form of new compensation - not just from her hospital colleagues, but even from strangers. It's not monetary compensation, but she still appreciates it.

ALERS: I was walking to the store the other day, and there were two people walking across the street. And they started yelling, hey, lady; hey, lady. And I looked and saw they're talking to me. I said, yes. And they said, we love you. Stay safe. Thank you. So I get a lot of that.

Sometimes when people see me in uniform or they see I'm a hospital worker, they - they'll thank me for my service. It's uplifting. And you know, like I said, the exchange between doctors and us now - it's a lot different. You know, we'll tell them, thank you for coming in. And they - they'll tell us, thank you for coming in.

GARCIA: And of course, there have been a lot of uplifting sentiments like that about essential workers coming from politicians and from policymakers as well. But Adie Tomer argues, given the health risks that these workers are taking so that the rest of us can stay safe, there is a societal obligation to go beyond just offering kind words.

So he and his colleagues have four policy ideas. The most obvious one - make sure essential workers have enough protective equipment to do their jobs. Second - also kind of obvious - health insurance. Either automatically enroll essential workers in a health insurance plan or, if they already have insurance, subsidize their out-of-pocket costs if they get sick from COVID-19.

Third, life insurance. The family of any essential worker who dies from COVID-19 should get a big payout from the government. And keep in mind here that when a worker dies from this disease, that's already tragic enough, but it also represents a loss of income for the family. Minerva says one of her colleagues, another security guard, recently passed away from COVID-19 after dozens of years on the job. And Adie's fourth idea is that these workers should get extra pay - hazard pay - from the government. But for all four of these policy ideas, there remains that one big obstacle standing in the way of implementing them.

TOMER: The real genesis of the problem, besides the just general lack of clarity, is there's no defined list at the federal level. And you go state to state, sometimes even from city to city within the same state. You see a totally different list of what's an essential industry.

GARCIA: Even so, Adie says that it would be worth the effort of clarifying this definition and helping out these workers through legislation. These essential workers are, after all, taking a big risk for all of us, so he says it makes sense that all of us find a way to reward them for it.

As for Minerva, she says she is proud to keep doing her job now, proud to be on the front lines of fighting this terrible disease. But she's also, like the rest of us, ready for the pandemic to be over.

ALERS: But - that this time when we're back out there, instead of all the violence and stuff that we were experiencing, that maybe a little more kindness, a little more appreciation and a little more respect for life.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen. Our fact-checker is Brittany Cronin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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