Study finds many essential workers feeling unsafe, unprotected on the job

  • In this March 26, 2020, file photo, Garrett Ward sprays disinfectant on a conveyor belt between checking out shoppers behind a plexiglass panel at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Overland Park, Kansas. From South Africa to Italy to the U.S., grocery workers — many in low-wage jobs — are manning the front lines amid worldwide lockdowns, their work deemed essential to keep food and critical goods flowing. AP PHOTO/CHARLIE RIEDEL

Staff Writer
Published: 5/6/2020 1:03:46 PM

AMHERST — As COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Massachusetts, praise for the essential workers still going to their jobs is ubiquitous. Residents celebrate health care workers at the end of their shifts and on Wednesday the Westfield-based 104th Fighter Wing flew over hospitals in a sign of appreciation.

However, many of those same essential workers in western Massachusetts — particularly in low-wage jobs — are feeling unsafe and unprotected at work. That’s according to a new study by two researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Labor Center, Clare Hammonds and Jasmine Kerrissey. 

In a survey of 1,600 essential workers in the region, the researchers found that 51% said that they do not feel safe at work. The report found that 65% are unable to practice social distancing at work, 21% lack masks in the workplace, 17% lack hand sanitizer, 8% are unable to wash hands regularly and 16% said their employers asked them to not share their health information with co-workers.

In particular, 67% of grocery and other retail employees reported feeling unsafe at work. Low-wage workers were two to three times more likely than high-wage workers to lack access to safety measures, the study found. And 36% of those low-wage workers also reported being unable to meet their family’s food needs in the previous week, with food insecurity concentrated among Latino workers. The study defines low wage workers as earning less than $20 per hour and high-wage workers as earning more than $40 per hour. 

“There are many who are claiming that the coronavirus is the great equalizer,” Kerrissey said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Really what this points out is that the impacts of COVID-19 are felt much more strongly by the working class and low-wage workers.”

The figures come as some communities in the western part of the state are being hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. The Springfield metro area, for example, is eighth in the country in confirmed COVID-19 deaths per 1,000 residents, according to data compiled by The New York Times. The Greenfield metro area was 12th on that list.

The report notes that many low-wage workers often lack the option of quitting if they feel unsafe. One unnamed worker said in the study: “We are not heroes because it is not a choice.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has both accelerated and elevated some of these existing inequalities in our labor market,” Hammonds said. “And it makes them so much more visible and salient when the workers asked to take the greatest risks with their own health and safety are the workers who are often experiencing the least compensation for that.” 

The report highlighted several industries with particularly concerning safety practices. It notes that around one third of transportation workers reported not having the ability to regularly wash their hands, no access to hand sanitizer and no employer-provided mask. Of those transportation workers, 60% said they are unable to practice social distancing at work.

Another group that felt particularly unsafe were grocery and retail workers, who reported high levels of interactions with the public who aren’t always following social-distancing and safety guidelines. Sometimes, employers will not step in to enforce those boundaries, those workers reported.

Only 20% of the survey’s respondents reported receiving hazard pay, and 17% said they do not receive sick leave. Around half said they would be unable to use paid time off if a family member were to get sick.

Among the recommendations Hammonds and Kerrissey make for improving the situation of essential workers: expanded enforcement of health and safety protections, as well as municipal ordinances; hazard pay; and the protection of workers’ rights to self-organize and engage in collective action.

Hammonds noted that there has been an increase in labor unrest over the last several years, and that the stress of the current economic collapse is sparking even more strikes, walk-outs and other actions.

“I think the question is how that gets translated into some sort of more permanent organizations so that workers can be part of the conversation about health and safety on their job and part of the conversation about how we shape the economic recovery,” Hammonds said.

Late last week, Gov. Charlie Baker named his 17-member Reopening Advisory Board, meant to inform the administration on strategies to reopen the economy. The administration came under criticism from some for failing to include an occupational health and safety expert or anyone from organized labor on the body.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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