This is the shocking number of US workers at risk of COVID-19 infection

One of the biggest stories right now is the bravery and resolve of healthcare workers all over the US and world. Doctors, nurses, and everyone in between are working around the clock to save lives, and we find ourselves wondering why it took a global pandemic for us all to appreciate everything they do. Beyond medical professionals, though, there are millions of other Americans still reporting for work every day amid this pandemic. Grocery store employees, pharmacists, firefighters, and police officers, just to name a few.

A new study from the University of Washington has calculated the exact number of US workers putting themselves in harm’s way, and the numbers are surprising in their scope. Every week, 14.4 million workers risk infection. Meanwhile, at least once a month 26.7 million workers face exposure to COVID-19. Those numbers work out to roughly 10% and 18.4% of the US workforce, respectively.

The ultimate irony here is that while most employees with high salaries can work from home right now, the people with lower-paying essential service positions find themselves in danger each day they report for another shift. These essential workers are paid less, oftentimes have no access to paid sick leave, and in some cases, aren’t even provided health insurance.

Assistant Professor of Public Health Marissa Baker, the study’s lead author, made her calculations by analyzing Federal employment (employer & self-reported employee) data.

“While healthcare occupations represent the bulk of workers exposed to infection and disease, other occupations that frequently interface with the public and provide essential services are also at increased risk of exposure. Those include police officers, firefighters, childcare workers, and personal care aides,” says Baker in a university release. “This underscores the importance of all types of occupations developing workplace response plans for infectious disease.”

First of all, these workers need to be properly protected while on the job and dealing with the public. Besides that, according to Baker, another major element in all of this is how millions of Americans feel as though they have no other choice right now but to report for work, even if they may be feeling sick themselves. American work culture has emphasized putting one’s job over their wellbeing for decades; it’s nothing new.

“Our findings serve as an important reminder that the workplace should be a focus for public health intervention, especially during disease outbreaks such as COVID-19,” Baker adds.

Even before COVID-19 appeared, the United States’ paid sick leave policies were decades behind the rest of the developed world. Now, the cultural and financial pressures employees are feeling to report for work are putting countless lives in danger. 

“The public health implications from our study,” Baker concludes, “are that workplaces need to make sure that they are not only protecting their workers at work, but also coming up with contingency plans to make sure that sick workers are not coming to work, and that can be accomplished through training workers to fill in for each other, providing additional paid sick leave during this time and similar measures.”

For the tens of millions of us trapped inside all day and working from home, it’s easy to forget that many Americans are still reporting for work each day and putting themselves at risk. These employees deserve recognition, but even more important than that, they deserve access to paid sick leave, not to mention a pay raise in many instances.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE. 

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.