THIS WEEK American military aircraft took to the skies in several states to “salute” essential workers for their role in the coronavirus pandemic. Some of those workers might grumble that such displays mean little if they are not adequately protected on the job.
Nearly one in four American workers are employed in services. Many forced to stay at home because of the covid-19 pandemic—including restaurant and retail workers—have since been laid off or had their hours cut. But those deemed “essential” by government authorities—such as supermarket cashiers, delivery workers and pharmacists—have continued to work, risking exposure to the coronavirus.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance on what firms can do to protect their employees, including temperature checks, providing sanitising facilities, masks and social-distancing. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency responsible for ensuring that workplaces are safe, has mostly left employers to their own devices. As a result, the extent to which workers are shielded from infection has varied widely.
A study by the Shift Project, a research unit at the University of California, suggests that workplace-safety efforts are all over the shop. In March and April the group surveyed retail and food-service workers about the precautions their employers had taken to protect them from the coronavirus. Of the 8,000 people surveyed, 65% said their employers had introduced new cleaning and sanitising measures and 56% said they were equipped with gloves. But only 19% said they were offered masks. And few firms made the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) mandatory. Only 18% of workers were required to wear gloves on the job; just 7% had to wear masks.
Some industries have been more proactive than others. The survey found that hotel workers and pharmacists had relatively good access to gloves and masks. Convenience-store staff and delivery workers were less well provided for. Although two-thirds of big-box stores had introduced new cleaning requirements, only 12% of workers said gloves were required in the workplace, and only 6% were told to wear masks. Despite the recent surge in e-commerce sales, only 17% of warehouse workers and 10% of delivery drivers had access to masks (see chart).
The results suggest that many service workers are at risk. Yet few can afford to get sick. Even before the crisis, more than half of service-sector workers had no paid sick leave. Among those without leave, 45% said they would not be able to come up with $400 to cover an unexpected expense or loss of income, such as losing a week’s pay. Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, and Ro Khanna, a representative from California, have proposed a bill that would ensure more uniform protection for front-line workers, including more PPE. As states begin to re-open their economies, and more workers have to put themselves at risk, the need for effective protection will become more urgent.