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Michal Grinstein-Weiss and Marla Blow: Masks aren't the only answer to keeping workers safe

Michal Grinstein-Weiss and Marla Blow: Masks aren't the only answer to keeping workers safe

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While it may be tempting to assume rising coronavirus cases are due to people’s failure to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the answer is not that simple. A nationally representative survey administered by Washington University’s Social Policy Institute suggests that the economic realities of Black and Hispanic individuals could contribute to a higher risk of contracting the virus. While 82% of Hispanic and 77% of Black respondents said they wore a mask, only 70% of white respondents said they did. Yet the concentration of Black and Hispanic workers in essential jobs may render even the strictest adherence insufficient.

This tells us that if given the opportunity or choice, Black and Hispanic populations are most likely to follow government guidelines — yet they are still being infected at higher rates than white people. We see this play out in St. Louis where disproportionate numbers of coronavirus cases are occurring in ZIP codes that are largely Black or Hispanic and low-income.

For example, the northernmost ZIP code in the city, 63147, has the region’s highest infection rate of 2,651 per 100,000 residents. This area is overwhelmingly Black and has a median household income of $33,946. On the other hand, 63123 in the southernmost part of the city has one of the lowest case rates of 1,052 per 100,000 residents. This ZIP code is overwhelmingly white and has a median household income of $52,877.

Rather than non-compliance, a more likely explanation of these hot spot ZIP codes is that these residents are more vulnerable to coronavirus exposure due to factors such as dense housing, no child care, expensive or no health care, and the need to be physically present at work. Despite self-reporting higher compliance with CDC guidelines, Hispanic respondents who indicated they did not practice social distancing cited “needed the money from my job” as the reason.

Black and Hispanic populations are overrepresented in essential jobs such as care aides, janitors, grocery workers and delivery persons. These are the very jobs that have kept our communities functioning, yet often are lower-paid and do not offer benefits.

Although some employees received a minimal pay boost for “hero” pay, many of those benefits have ended. Low wages and the lack of benefits make it difficult, if not impossible, for most essential workers to accumulate emergency savings or to skip a paycheck by staying home and reducing their risk of virus exposure. This harsh financial reality helps make sense of the high number of coronavirus cases in the lowest-income ZIP codes. The Social Policy Institute survey found that regardless of race, as people’s liquid savings increases, so does their ability to afford to practice social distancing and thereby protect themselves, their family and others.

We see the impact in St. Louis, but the problem is national. As Congress continues its stalemate over an extension of unemployment benefits and the next round of stimulus, we recommend three policy actions to improve the financial security and well-being of essential workers for the long-term.

• Provide essential workers with paid time off. No employees should have to choose between reporting to work when feeling ill or feeding their family. Providing sick leave also has an economic benefit for employers. If an employee contracts the virus, the workplace often must shut down. When employees are stressed about finances or health, they perform poorly.

• Increase an individual’s ability to build emergency savings. In the short-term, government and nonprofits have begun collaborating to provide emergency funds. In the longer term, institutions have begun to think about how to help employers and others make emergency savings easier for workers.

• Improve job quality and skills. By creating better opportunities for advancement and upward mobility to higher-quality, higher-paying jobs, employees have more growth potential. Additionally, employers and governments should explore mechanisms to make all jobs better and provide basic worker protections, such as through portable benefits for gig workers. Portable benefits would help remove friction in the labor market, enabling workers to redeploy more readily as opportunities materialize.

The precarious situation of low-wage workers hurts everyone. Society is better off when people are safe on the job, can afford to stay home if they are sick, and have a safety net to rely on. Now more than ever, the nation must have an opportunity to build a more resilient and inclusive workforce. By addressing longstanding inequalities that have undervalued essential workers, these measures would ensure that no one is put in a position of choosing health over a paycheck.

Michal Grinstein-Weirss is director of the Social Policy Institute at Washington University. Marla Blow is senior vice president of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.

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