September 2020

By Karen A. Tramontano


Having celebrated Labor Day in the United States amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to celebrate workers—especially those known as “essential workers.” It is equally important to know the facts about these workers, including the jobs they perform and the services they provide.

Essential workers are defined by the general categories in which they work, including healthcare, transportation, cleaning services, grocery, retail, wholesale stores, and delivery and postal services. Essential workers are overworked and underappreciated and the positions they occupy are underpaid with little or no safety net and few, if any, employment protections. While these workers have always been essential to the overall health and welfare of society, the contribution these workers make has been ignored—until now.

Here are some of the key facts about essential workers: Essential workers serving society on the frontlines are disproportionately women—nearly 65 percent are women. Women are overrepresented in the caring industries: 76 percent in healthcare and 85 percent in child and social services. This trend runs across all essential occupations, including customer service representatives, fast food workers, and retail sales clerks.

People of color are also overrepresented with one in four serving in a frontline occupation. Latinos are overrepresented in cleaning occupations and African Americans are overrepresented in childcare and social service occupations. Today, one in six essential workers are immigrants and are working in dangerous, low paying jobs, including, as we have seen, in the meat packing industry.

Essential workers tend to be over 50 years old and have family care obligations, including child-care and elder care. One third of all essential workers are members of low-income families.

COVID-19 has put a human face on these workers—a face that for far too long has not been seen. The challenge for each of us as we reflect on this past Labor Day is to continue to see the faces of essential workers long after COVID-19 is brought under control. As we look for their faces, we must support the policy changes necessary to ensure these workers are not only celebrated, but also can access the economic and health care benefits they deserve as U.S. workers.

This article was compiled using data from “A Basic Demographic Profile of Workers in Frontline Industries,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, April 2020, https://cepr.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/2020-04-Frontline-Workers.pdf