COVID, poverty burden front-line workers

Kim Brent / Beaumont Enterprise

In May, a masked cashier in Beaumont helps an unmasked customer. Women and minorities are more likely to be lower-paid front-line workers, highlighting the inequities of this pandemic.

Like nothing else in recent memory, the COVID-19 pandemic has swept through our society — exposing the rifts and ruptures that have lurked just below the surface until now.

While initially the focus was on the health impacts of the novel coronavirus — who would get it, how dangerous would it be — the economic impacts soon loomed just as large, creating the double whammy we’ve been experiencing for the past few months.

Most recently, a factor has emerged that ties these two together — the question of who “essential workers” are, and whether by race, ethnicity and gender the most vulnerable among us are called to do the most for the least remuneration.

Recently, the Applied Demography seminar on poverty and inequality at the University of Texas at San Antonio took a wide-ranging look at “front-line workers” across America, to see what they were earning, whether they were likely to be insured, and how their wages varied by race, ethnicity and gender. What we found was shocking, but not that different from how the burden of COVID-19 seems unequally distributed.

Using data from the American Community Survey, or ACS, we identified a group of 71 front-line occupations, which were typically public-facing and unlikely to be performed remotely, and where duties customarily took place in close proximity to others, such as health care workers, grocery clerks and meat cutters. We then split front-line workers into two categories by income: low-earning and higher-earning, with $30,000 being the dividing line between the two, or approximately 120 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four.

Here is what we found:

• More than half (54 percent) of front-line workers earned less than $30,000 annually.

• More than a third of Black workers (36 percent) and fully a third of Hispanic workers (33 percent) serve as front-line workers, compared to their Asian (25 percent) or non-Hispanic white counterparts (21 percent).

• Hispanic and Black workers are more likely to be concentrated in lower-paid front-line occupations than Asian or white workers. Nearly 75 percent of Hispanic and almost 3 out of 5 Black front-line workers earn $30,000 or less annually.

• More women (28 percent) than men (21 percent) are front-line workers, and more women than men are in front-line occupations irrespective of race or ethnicity. Women are more heavily concentrated in lower-paid front-line occupations than men, across all racial and ethnic groups.

• More than one-quarter of Hispanic (27 percent) and close to one-quarter of Black women (23 percent) workers are employed in lower-paid front-line occupations.

• The median income for lower-paid front-line work across race and ethnicity ranges from $22,000 to about $24,600. For higher-paid front-line work, the range is much broader, from about $42,600 to $72,000.

• Women in lower-paid front-line occupations are likely to have lower median incomes than their male counterparts. Additionally, women in lower-paid front-line work make between $1,000 and $7,000 less than men, across all race/ethnicity groups.

• Among lower-paid front-line workers, Hispanic women have the lowest median income ($19,900) and white men have the highest ($28,200).

• Among women front-line workers in the lower-paid category, Hispanics ($19,900) earn the least, followed by whites ($21,170) and Blacks ($21,517). Among higher-paid women front-line workers, Hispanics ($43,505) earn the least, followed by Blacks ($45,493) and whites ($53,984), indicating that inequality increases as wages rise.

• Lower-income front-line workers (23 percent) are more likely to be uninsured than higher-income front-line workers (7 percent). We estimate this means almost 3.8 million lower-income front-line workers are without health insurance.

• Among lower-income front-line workers, Hispanics are more likely (37 percent) to be uninsured, compared to Blacks (19 percent), and both Asians and whites (16 percent). Even among higher-paid front-line workers this insurance coverage disparity is evident. Fifteen percent of higher-income Hispanic front-line workers are uninsured, along with less than 8 percent of whites, Blacks and Asians.

What we learned from our data analysis was the burdens of front-line work — like the impacts of COVID-19 generally — fall disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers, and particularly on women of color. If as a society we say we value front-line work, we need to make sure we value front-line workers: Pay them a living wage and see that they’re insured. Otherwise we’re asking the already burdened to do even more for not enough.

Joachim Singelmann is a demography professor with UTSA. The other authors were part of his small-group seminar on poverty and inequality for the spring 2020 semester.