The terms “frontline worker” or “essential employee” may conjure images of doctors, nurses, or other medical professionals directly engaging the global health crisis, but that doesn’t paint the entire picture. Many forget essential members of the workforce include bus drivers keeping public transportation in motion, restaurant workers preparing our delivery meals, and grocery store clerks helping ensure everyone gets their toilet paper and sanitary wipes.
So, exactly who are the people working on the “frontlines” of the COVID-19 crisis, and are they earning the compensation they deserve for the danger they could be in? To find out, we analyzed data curated by the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) from the March 2020 Current Population Report conducted jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in addition to the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASES) report from 2019. Read on as we explore whether women or men are more likely to work in frontline industries; which races and ethnicities make up the largest percentage of the essential workforce; how much money frontline industry workers earn in states all across America; and what jobs are considered "essential" all over the country.
The Face of the Frontline
Overwhelmingly, the majority of frontline workers are women. Not only have 1 in 3 jobs held by women been classified as “essential” in most states, but nearly 57% of people working in frontline industries are also women. Compared to 24% of men working in essential jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 34% of working women are holding frontline jobs.
According to our findings, white Americans and Asian Americans were classified as the least likely to find themselves working jobs that have been deemed essential. Compared to 35% of black Americans and 30% of multiracial Americans, fewer than 28% of white and Asian American employees work in frontline jobs. With restaurants and other food service jobs accounting for the largest percentage (20%) of frontline jobs — followed by health care workers and public order enforcers — more than 56% of employed Americans between the ages of 15 and 19 are currently deemed essential in most areas.
Despite existing across a multitude of industries and job types, Americans working in frontline jobs are interacting with other people on a regular basis, increasing the likelihood that they could come in contact with COVID-19 and potentially carry it home to their family. Even though there is tremendous risk associated with maintaining an essential job during this health crisis, guidelines and expert opinions around how to best protect these frontline workers are mixed, often being left up to employers or individual states.
While frontline industries have a higher risk for contracting COVID-19 — a disease that, as of May 12,2020, has claimed over 80,000 lives in the United States alone — their compensation often doesn’t reflect the level of danger they may be in everyday. Compared to other non-frontline industries earning an average salary of $55,990, Americans in jobs that are classified as “essential” earn $46,639, on average.
Despite accounting for a majority of frontline jobs, women in frontline essential industries earn at least $12,000 less than men in frontline essential industries, on average. Asian Americans ($59,487) and white Americans ($47,795) in frontline jobs also earned the highest average salaries despite making up the smallest percentage of frontline workers. In contrast, American Indians in frontline essential jobs earned the least on average ($31,044), followed by multiracial Americans ($35,379) and black Americans ($37,939). For all of these salaries, it’s important to note that they could be influenced by employees in the healthcare industry, which typically pays more than other industries on the frontline. In addition, people of various ranks within these industries are included in the averages.
The Pay Gap
In some cities and states, a higher percentage of employed Americans are more likely to be classified as frontline workers, compared to other locations. For example, while analyzing the entire demographic of employed Americans, 34.9% of residents in West Virginia are classified as frontline workers, followed by 32.9% in Alaska, and 32.6% in Delaware. In New York, where 31.5% of employees work in frontline jobs, there have been over 330,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 27,000 deaths as of May 12, 2020.
In some parts of the country, more than half of all working residents are employed in frontline industries, including Carbondale-Marion in Illinois — where more than 70% of working residents have been deemed frontline essential workers — followed by 63% in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and 61% in Florence, South Carolina.
Earning Hazard Pay
Where you live can also deeply impact the amount of money you’re likely to make as a frontline essential worker. Frontline jobs in Massachusetts, Washington, and Hawaii had the highest average salaries for essential industries, ranging from nearly $55,000 to over $56,000.
In Niles-Benton Harbor, Michigan, frontline essential workers earn over $87,000 on average, and several other major metropolitan areas report similarly high salaries for frontline essential workers, including San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont ($80,646) and Boston-Cambridge-Newton ($72,124).
In contrast, people living in areas including McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas ($22,973); Goldsboro, North Carolina ($27,449); Jacksonville, North Carolina ($27,975); and Battle Creek, Michigan ($31,743) earn far less than the average salary for frontline workers despite the increased danger of their jobs. Although Niles-Benton Harbor and Battle Creek in Michigan are only roughly 80 miles apart, frontline essential workers in Battle Creek earn over $55,000 less annually compared to those working in Niles.
In Connecticut, while nearly 1 in 4 employed residents work in frontline essential jobs, 6% of those live below the poverty level. Similarly, while the average frontline essential worker in Massachusetts earns over $56,000 a year, 6.3% of them live below the poverty line.
In New Jersey, where more than 1 in 4 residents work in a frontline job, 23% of frontline essential employees are black, and 4% live below the poverty line.
Defining What It Means to Be Essential
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no singular industry that frontline essential workers exist in. Even if you often think of healthcare workers when you hear the term “frontline employees,” they aren’t the only people putting their own health or safety at risk in order to do their jobs. Frontline employees consist of workers in essential industries that still come into contact with customers or patients daily. While they may not have the opportunity to work remotely or to enact social distancing procedures throughout their shifts, frontline essential jobs pay less money on average than the standard salary. Women make up the majority of frontline employees, and they earn less money on average than men working frontline essential jobs.
In addition to healthcare workers, here are all of the industries from IPUMS we considered "essential" and on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Essential Industries (Cont.)
Investigation and security services
Groceries and related products, merchant wholesalers
Offices of physicians
Offices of dentists
Auto parts, accessories, and tire stores
Office of chiropractors
Household appliance stores
Offices of optometrists
Lawn and garden equipment and supplies stores
Offices of other health practitioners
Outpatient care centers
Supermarkets and other grocery stores
Home health care services
Justice, public order, and safety activities
Specialty food stores
General medical and surgical hospitals, and specialty hospitals
Beer, wine, and liquor stores
Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals
Pharmacies and drug stores
Nursing care facilities
Health and personal care, except drug, stores
Residential care facilities, without nursing
Individual and family services
Community food and housing, and emergency services
Bus service and urban transit
Restaurants and other food services
Taxi and limousine service
Automotive repair and maintenance
Funeral homes, and cemeteries and crematories
Couriers and messengers
To all of the people working in each of these industries and any others we may have missed, thank you, for risking your health to provide us and our families with the goods and services we need during these times. We appreciate all that you are doing.
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Methodology and Limitations
The CPS is a monthly U.S. household survey conducted jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A handful of specific labor force and demographic questions, known as the “basic monthly survey,” is asked every month. The Annual Social and Economic Supplement (hereafter referred to as the ASEC) is the most widely used by social scientists and policymakers. The ASEC along with basic monthly data from the CPS provides the data for IPUMS-CPS.
All data is weighted. Data on income and poverty come from Annual Survey: ASEC 2019, while everything else comes from the March 2020 sample, which was released April 15, 2020.
We defined “frontline essential workers” as people who are in essential industries still coming into contact with customers daily, therefore industries like warehouse workers and manufacturers are not included in our study despite currently still going to work daily. Our full list of essential industries can be seen here.
Our study is only based on working Americans over age 15 and does not include anyone who said they are currently out of work. This is industry-based, not based on positions, therefore people who work in these industries, but may not have a frontline position, are included in this study. No outliers for salaries were removed. Salaries are also not controlled for ranking or position of the employee within an industry.
Fair Use Statement
Whether your readers are facing furloughs or industry uncertainty, you want them to have the best information on hand. Share the results of this study for any noncommercial use with a link back to this page so readers have full access to our results.