Identifying essential and frontline workers and understanding their characteristics is useful for policymakers and researchers in targeting social insurance and safety net policies in response to the COVID-19 crisis and allocating scarce resources like personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccines. We develop a working definition and provide data on the demographic and labor market composition of these workers. We first apply the official industry guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in March 2020 to microdata from the 2018 and 2019 American Community Survey to identify essential workers regardless of actual operation status of their industry. We then use the feasibility of work from home in the worker's occupation group (Dingel and Neiman 2020) to identify those most likely to be frontline workers who worked in-person early in the COVID-19 crisis in March/April 2020. In a third step, we exclude industries that were shut down or running under limited demand at that time (Vavra 2020). We find that the broader group of essential workers comprises a large share of the labor force and tends to mirror its demographic and labor market characteristics. In contrast, the narrower category of frontline workers is, on average, less educated, has lower wages, and has a higher representation of men, disadvantaged minorities, especially Hispanics, and immigrants. These results hold even when excluding industries that were shut down or operating at a limited level. Results for essential and frontline workers are similar when accounting for changes in the federal guidelines over time by using the December 2020 guidelines which include a few additional groups of workers, including the education sector.
Keywords COVID-19 * Essential workers * Frontline workers * Race and gender diiferences * Occupational risk
The COVID-19 pandemic has required the identification of essential workers, who are vital for the core functioning of societal infrastructure. Formation of policies to protect and meet the needs of these essential workers and to allocate scarce resources like personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccines depends on knowing their composition and characteristics. However, identifying essential workers is not straightforward. The definition of essential work may differ by state, or even locality, and change rapidly over time. Moreover, the risk essential workers face is influenced by whether they are frontline workers who must provide their labor in person or whether they can work from home. As some industries, even those deemed essential, may at times be mostly shut down or facing steep decreases in demand, who is really at work also depends on the current shut down or demand status of their industry.
We address these data issues to provide information on the characteristics of essential workers and, more specifically, frontline workers. We begin by applying the official industry guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in March 2020 to microdata from the 2018 and 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) to identify the broader group of essential workers. (1) We then use data on the feasibility of work from...