Since the beginning of the pandemic, workers in essential industries needing to work in person continued going to work and keeping the nation running while risking exposure to the novel coronavirus. And as states reopened, many nonessential workers returned to work, risking exposure to the virus to allow people to shop in stores, eat in restaurants, and obtain personal services. We find that Black, Native American, and Hispanic/Latinx workers are more likely than white workers to have jobs that place them at greater risk of exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus. More than half of all Black, Native American, and Hispanic/Latinx workers have essential or nonessential jobs that must be done in person and close to others, compared with 41 percent of white workers. In addition, Black, Native American, and Hispanic/Latinx workers who must work in person and close to others have lower incomes than white workers in these jobs and are less likely to have health insurance. Finally, Black, Native American, and Hispanic/Latinx households face greater risks of transmission of the virus at home because they are more likely to have a worker who works in person and close to others and to live in households with multiple generations of adults.
Significant community spread of the virus across the country this fall puts both essential and nonessential workers needing to work in person at even higher risk for contracting COVID-19, making it even more urgent that policies and systems be developed to protect and support them. Given the multifaceted determinants of inequities in virus exposure, policy solutions will need to be simultaneously broad and targeted, covering public health practices, workplace policies, and access to health care. Importantly, with safe, effective vaccines emerging for COVID-19, it is essential that distribution of free or very low–cost vaccines be prioritized for essential workers whose jobs place them in frequent contact with others. Efforts to vaccinate workers should encourage voluntary receipt while accounting for workers’ potential concerns about vaccine safety and cost. At the same time, the roll out of the vaccine will need to be accompanied by outreach campaigns developed and implemented with community input, using trusted messengers and health care providers. In addition, government officials will need to earn and sustain trust regarding the safety of any COVID-19 vaccine.