Survey: Essential workers don’t feel safe

New study finds workers lack protective equipment

“ESSENTIAL” WORKERS MUST go to work during the coronavirus pandemic — but a majority of these workers do not feel safe at their jobs, according to a new survey.

The survey of 1,600 essential workers in Western Massachusetts conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Labor Center found that the workers, by and large, are unable to practice social distancing at work. Many lack facemasks, hand sanitizer, or regular opportunities for handwashing.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of workers, particularly low-wage workers, really lack access to some basic safety measures on the job,” said labor studies professor Clare Hammonds.

The report, by Hammonds and Jasmine Kerrissey, an assistant professor of sociology and labor studies, used Facebook to recruit participants to complete an online survey, which was open between April 17-24 to workers who were working in the four Western Massachusetts counties.

Of 1,600 respondents, 45 percent worked in health care, 15 percent in grocery and retail, and the rest were split between manufacturing, transportation, construction, utilities, public safety, and other industries. Over 90 percent were white, likely reflecting the demographics of Western Massachusetts. Just under half were earning less than $20 an hour, while 12 percent earned more than $40 an hour.

The survey found that 51 percent of the workers did not feel safe at work, including 67 percent of those working in grocery stores or retail, and just over half of those working in health care and manufacturing.

Across industries, the workers reported that they were unable to take the recommended precautions to stop the spread of coronavirus. Sixty-five percent said they could not practice social distancing at work, 21 percent said their employers did not give them masks, and 17 percent said employers did not give them hand sanitizer. Twelve percent said employers were not encouraging sick workers to stay home and 16 percent were asked not to tell their coworkers if they had COVID-19.

The lowest income workers were most likely to face dangerous conditions at work. Comparing those who earned less than $20 an hour with those who earned more than $40 an hour, the low-wage workers were more likely to feel unsafe (54 percent compared to 44 percent), to have no training in containing the spread of disease (35 percent to 15 percent), and to lack access to masks, hand sanitizer, and regular handwashing. The only area where high-wage workers were worse off was in their inability to practice social distancing, probably because many higher wage workers work in health care, in close contact with patients.

Some industries were particularly concerning, according to the report. Around one-third of transportation workers said they could not regularly wash their hands and had no employer-provided hand sanitizer or masks.

Grocery and retail workers described customers who came in for non-essential errands, like getting a cup of coffee, and did not stay six feet away from workers. Many reported working in high-stress environments, with belligerent shoppers.

Hammonds noted that across industries, as workers are calling in sick, many of those remaining report that “there’s more work to be done by fewer people.”

Although only 6 percent of respondents were Latino, Latino workers were disproportionately working in low-wage jobs and were less likely to have health insurance or paid sick time.

While some industries have begun offering hazard pay to essential workers, only 20 percent of those who filled out the survey were receiving hazard pay.

The report recommends that all employers provide access to adequate personal protective equipment and give all workers access to paid sick time. The report also recommends providing hazard pay to essential employees, noting that for some, working is less profitable right now than collecting unemployment benefits.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

As the state starts to plan for gradually reopening the economy, Kerrissey said it will be important to ensure that every worker who returns has access to basic safety equipment and protocols, no matter their industry.

The Baker administration announced plans on Monday for a four-phase reopening of the state’s economy which will include across-the-board workplace safety requirement in all sectors.