Tin Aye emigrated from a refugee camp in Thailand to Colorado in 2007 with her husband and two children. She worked at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley. On May 17, 2020, she died of complications from COVID-19 after being hospitalized on a ventilator for seven weeks. At the time, Aye, age 60, was the eighth JBS Greeley employee (and seventh worker) confirmed to have died from COVID-19; 316 plant workers had tested positive by May 17. (1)
Sandra Kunz, a Walmart cashier, died on April 20, 2020, from complications related to the coronavirus. Despite being 72 years old with a lung condition, Kunz continued working--her husband was injured and out of work, and the couple had bills to pay. Public health and worker safety experts recognize the register as the most dangerous place in the store. Cashiers work at arm's length from customers all day, making social distancing virtually impossible. (2)
When the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the United States in early 2020, the concept of essential workers rose to prominence. While the category became a focus for media coverage and political debate, its definition and boundaries have been somewhat fluid. According to the Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Advisory Memorandum, the category covers 17 broad groups of workers, amounting to almost half of the workforce. (3) And the CISA guidance, intended to be overly broad, (4) has spawned a range of state responses as to what constitutes "essential work." (5)
These varied definitional approaches bypass an important distinction among essential workers: those who basically work from home versus those who must travel to their jobs and interact with coworkers and the public on a regular basis. The 40% of essential workers who can work from home have not been unduly vulnerable or precarious. (6) If anything, they were among the fortunate who could count on reasonably steady income in a safe workspace at a time when one-quarter of the working population...