UMass survey finds state’s essential workers ‘stressed, unsafe, and insecure’

  • UMass Amherst campus Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism

Staff Writer
Published: 6/14/2020 7:14:11 PM

AMHERST — A newly released survey from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Labor Center and the Center for Employment Equity shows that most essential workers in the state have felt unsafe, stressed and unable to practice social distancing in their workplaces.

According to the survey results, compiled in a report titled “Stressed, Unsafe, and Insecure: Essential Workers Need A New, New Deal,” nearly 60% of essential workers in Massachusetts reported that they do not feel safe at work, 71% said they were unable to practice social distancing, and 86% experienced increased social stress. More than 2,500 essential workers — those in food and retail, health care workers, postal workers, first responders, medical center staff and others in businesses that were allowed to stay open throughout the pandemic — were polled for the survey, which was released earlier this month, between April 24 and May 1.

The survey also reports that 15% of such employers do not provide employees with masks or hand sanitizer, 10% of employees do not have access to regular hand washing, and about one-third of employees surveyed had not received training to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

“Overall, what we’ve seen is that essential workers in general are feeling huge amounts of stress and anxiety from being overworked and not being compensated,” said Clare Hammonds, a professor of practice at the Labor Center, noting that many “feel neglected, particularly in this moment of real crisis when they don’t feel protected on their job.”

She added, “I think a lot of them experience the disconnect between the language of ‘essential’ that we use to describe their job, and then the experience that we have with it.”

Low-wage workers, defined as earning less than $20 per hour, and workers of color have been particularly affected. Low-wage workers are two to three times more likely than other workers to have no paid sick days, company-provided health insurance or safety gear, and are four times more likely to face food insecurities and use a food bank. African-Americans and Latinx workers are particularly at risk: The survey reports that 43% of essential workers in Massachusetts are low-wage, and “disproportionately women and people of color.”

“The number of low-wage workers reporting food, childcare, and housing insecurity is astronomically high,” the report notes.

People of color were also more likely to report that they felt unsafe at work: 73% of Hispanic respondents and 70% of black respondents reported feeling unsafe — with higher rates among those who were also low-wage workers — compared to 57% of white respondents. Most workers attributed this insecurity to an inability to socially distance and a lack of personal protective equipment and training.

As states gradually reopen their economies, Hammond said the survey results show that low-wage workers who are just returning to their jobs may be particularly vulnerable to inadequate protections.

“Going into this reopening as we enter phase two and are moving on this track, I think it will be particularly important to think about how low-wage workers are treated,” Hammonds said.

As more workers return to their workplaces, Hammonds noted that the pandemic is not over and said questions remain about how every worker will have access to a face mask, hand sanitizer, training on infection prevention, and benefits such as paid sick leave and hazard pay. Longer-term, the report encourages measures such as a minimum wage of at least $15 per hour, separating health insurance from employment and a universal minimum income policy.

Although the report’s authors surveyed only essential workers in Massachusetts, they noted that the results may also shed light on even grimmer realities in other states. Massachusetts “has some of the strongest labor market protections in the U.S., including a $12.70 minimum wage, 97% health insurance coverage and paid sick leave,” the report notes. As a result, it adds, “whatever is happening to essential workers in Massachusetts is probably worse in many other states.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at

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