Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, child care and health care providers, farm workers and grocery store staff, and other frontline workers have risked their lives to keep our communities fed and cared for. As Washington state (and the nation) confronts a new surge of coronavirus infections, the risks to essential workers have continued and even worsened in some places. Too often, these workers go without adequate protective equipment, health care benefits, or wages commensurate with the essential nature of their work. These conditions mean that Washington state’s essential workforce has been forced to choose between their safety and a paycheck.
To be clear, the work of growing food, delivering goods, cleaning public spaces, and caring for children, people with disabilities, and people who are aging has always been essential. This is the work that keeps our communities well and our economy functioning. While the pandemic has brought essential work into sharper focus, it has also highlighted that these services (and the people who perform them) have been systematically undervalued – and rendered largely invisible – in the contemporary economy.
Black, Latinx, immigrant, and women workers continue to keep our communities afloat amidst the pandemic
There are nearly 775,000 essential workers in Washington state – more than one fifth of all working Washingtonians, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s estimates. They are employed across seven frontline industries, including health care; grocery, convenience, and drug stores; child care and social services; agriculture; public transit; trucking, warehouse, and postal services; and building cleaning services. Overall, these workers are disproportionately Black and Latinx. In certain frontline industries, Asian and Pacific Islander workers are also overrepresented. (See chart below.)
Women workers – especially women of color – are also doing a disproportionate share of Washington’s frontline work. Women are 46% of the state’s workforce overall but 60% of essential workers. And women make up more than three quarters of Washington’s essential health care, child care, and social service workers.
Immigrant workers, too, are overrepresented – while immigrants are 18% of Washington’s workforce overall, they are 23% of those employed in frontline industries. Fully half of agricultural workers and more than one quarter of workers in the trucking and building cleaning industries are immigrants.
These demographic patterns are largely informed by institutional racism and occupational segregation. Workplace discrimination, racist policies that exclude Black and brown people from higher education, and enduring gendered and racialized myths that certain kinds of labor (like care and farm work) are “low-skill” all continue to relegate Black, Indigenous, people of color, and women to the lowest-paid jobs in our economy.
Essential workers placed at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, exacerbating dangerous racial inequities
More than one in five essential workers live on low incomes (less than $25,520/year for one-person households), and more than one in 10 lack health insurance. In a global pandemic – in which Black and brown communities are more at risk of infection and death due to institutional racism – the denial of health coverage to essential workers is especially harmful. Essential workers cannot take their shifts from home (an option that has been reserved for mostly white, higher-income members of the workforce). Instead, they interact with the public and face potential coronavirus exposure every time they go to work.
Washington state lawmakers must act to protect essential workers & recognize the value of their work
To recognize the contributions essential workers make (day in and day out, pandemic or not), Washington state lawmakers must prioritize their needs in recovery legislation and take additional action to improve worker protections. They must:
- Follow the lead of essential workers themselves, especially Black, Indigenous, and Latinx workers, and other workers of color. Working people are organizing to demand better wages and more equitable working conditions, and policymakers should support the solutions that are coming from communities themselves. Since March, Washington farm workers have gone on strike to demand adequate personal protective equipment and better compensation, delivery workers successfully organized for hazard pay, child care providers have advocated for state investment to keep their doors open, and more. Workers are pushing back against being put at risk of exposure to COVID-19, and drawing connections to state violence and institutional racism shaping the dangerous conditions in which they work.
- Make sure all workers are included in basic labor protections. This includes investing in the Washington Worker Relief Fund to provide emergency economic assistance to undocumented Washingtonians, who are excluded from both standard unemployment insurance protections and the provisions of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – like unemployment insurance expansions and federal stimulus payments. State lawmakers should also enact a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to ensure that nannies, home care workers, and housecleaners have rights to the minimum wage, overtime, and breaks, just like other workers in Washington.
- Protect the health and safety of essential workers and improve working conditions for all working people across Washington state. State lawmakers must ensure workers in frontline industries have access to the healthcare and personal protective equipment they need to keep themselves and their families safe. They should also enact statewide secure scheduling legislation to ensure workers have stable and predictable hours and pay. At the federal level, lawmakers should pass a new federal relief package that includes hazard pay for essential workers and invests in other critical supports for people struggling to pay rent and put food on the table.