67 percent of grocery and other retail workers responding to a UMass survey reported feeling unsafe at work. Photo:

Source: UMass News and Media 

UMass Amherst researchers surveyed over 2,500 essential workers in Massachusetts between April 24 and May 1 about their working conditions. Six weeks into the COVID-19 shutdown, they found that large numbers of essential workers felt stressed, unsafe, and financially insecure. 

These data come from Massachusetts only but are instructive for how we should be thinking about policy responses in the reopening phase and beyond. Massachusetts, in many ways, 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. Whatever is happening to essential workers in Massachusetts is probably worse in many other states. 

The survey findings are similar to findings of a survey conducted one week earlier (April 17-April 24) of 1600 essential workers in Western Massachusetts. The study found that the majority of essential workers felt unsafe on the job and were unable to practice social distancing. A substantial minority of essential workers lacked access to basic safety equipment like hand sanitizer and supportive health related policies like paid sick days. Low wage essential workers— those earning under $20 per hour — and Latino and Black essential workers were particularly likely to experience unsafe practices, inadequate health related policies, and food insecurity.

“Essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic are scared, stressed and overworked. The core issues of inadequate safety, inadequate pay and a lack of respect are disproportionately borne by low wage workers and workers of color. We need a new, new deal that will protect these workers and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve,” said Clare Hammonds, of the UMass Labor Center. 

Retail workers reported an increase in customers who became aggressive with workers who enforced store policies on social distancing and masks. A grocery worker earning under $15 per hour writes, “Customers are much more aggressive than usual. Normally, you might have one or two out of 100 that would act disrespectfully to an associate, but now it is more like 60% of customers are uncooperative with store guidelines and are rude to associates because of it.”

The research team, Clare HammondsJasmine Kerrissey, and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, have released a final report describing findings and policy recommendations. The full report, “Stressed, Unsafe, and Insecure: Essential Workers Need A New, New Deal,” is available online through the two collaborating research centers: The Labor Center and the Center for Employment Equity.

“The pandemic has made clear that many workers who have been treated by their employers and the society in general as disposable, are actually socially essential. We need policy responses and employer practices that elevate all workers and their households, enabling dignified work and home lives.” said Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Center for Employment Equity. 

Key findings include:

  • The majority of essential workers do not feel safe at work (60%), are unable to practice social distancing (71%), and experience increased stress (86%).
  • Many employers do not provide proper safety gear. Some essential workers do not have access to masks (15%), hand sanitizer (15%), regular hand washing (10%), and roughly one in three received no training on preventing COVID-19 transmission (31%).
  • Grocery and retail workers face the additional problem of belligerent customers. Workers report increased rudeness and aggression from some customers when trying to implement social distancing and other COVID-19 store policies.
  • 43% of essential workers are low wage, earning less than $20/hour, and these workers are worse off in all dimensions.
    • Low wage workers are 2 to 3 times less likely to have safety gear, paid sick days, or health insurance. African American and Latino low wage workers are the most at risk.
    • Low wage workers are also unable to consistently meet basic needs, including being 4 times more likely to face food insecurities and to have used a food bank in the past week. These disturbing patterns are consistently worse for African American and Latino workers.

Based on these findings, the researchers recommend that workplace safety requirements be clearly defined and enforceable. Corporate leadership, employees and workers’ organizations should be part of COVID-19 safety planning, and all essential workers should have paid sick days and hazard pay.

Other recommendations include longer term policies, such as increasing minimum wage to at least $15/hour, as well as a generous and universal paid sick and family medical leave. Unemployment insurance coverage rates need to rise to at least 60% of prior earnings, health insurance needs to be decoupled from employment, and families need to be made secure with a universal minimum income policy.

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