Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Counting Essential Workers in American Communities

by Dante Chinni May 27, 2020

In times of a pandemic, the phrase “essential worker” can offer a sense of security. It means you’re insulated from at least some of the economic tumult that has come with the Covid-19 virus.

But a look at essential workers in the American Communities Project’s 15 county types shows that being an essential worker is not necessarily as positive as it appears to be. The communities with the highest numbers of essential workers are not those with the highest incomes or levels of educational attainment.

Rather, the data show that rural communities and those with large minority populations tend to have the largest percentage of “essential employees.” The African-American South, Hispanic Centers, Native American Lands and the Aging Farmlands all have more than 59% of their employees in essential positions on average. Meanwhile, the smallest percentage of essential workers — all under 49% — are in the Urban Suburbs, Exurbs, and College Towns places with higher educational attainment rates and more dynamic economies.

The essential employee data comes from Emsi, a labor markets analytics firm, and was analyzed using the ACP’s typology.

Behind the data are likely a few key factors.

First, a lot of high-paying jobs that require a college education — everything from lawyers and consultants to software engineers — have not been deemed essential by government entities during the pandemic, but they are good jobs that pay well. And, perhaps more important, even though they are not essential, they can still be done remotely.

Many of those jobs have moved from the downtown office to the home office — or the couch. Even as offices have shuttered, temporarily, workers with higher-skill, knowledge economy jobs are better positioned to ride out work-from-home orders. Those people are more likely to live in Urban Suburbs, Exurbs, and College Towns, as well as Big Cities.

On the other side of the equation, many of the “essential jobs” during the pandemic are as high-end as many imagine. While the mind might go to front-line health-care workers such as doctors and nurses, there are also plenty of people working in other areas away from hospitals and ambulances.

The Department of Homeland Security describes “essential employees” as workers who conduct “a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continued critical infrastructure viability.” Included are jobs in industries such as “medical and healthcare, telecommunications, information technology systems, defense” but also “food and agriculture, transportation and logistics, energy, water and wastewater.”

Essential — With New Risks

To be clear, those jobs, such as truck drivers, trash collectors, grocery store clerks, and managers, are all important and essential jobs during the Covid-19 outbreak, but they are not all well-compensated positions where life-and-death decisions tend to be part of daily work. There is a group of workers in the pandemic who are facing increased danger in their daily lives who did not go into their jobs looking for that kind of risk — and who are not compensated for it.

And the communities with the highest numbers of “essential jobs”  in the ACP are likely to have those positions of the lower-paying, less-technical variety. (We noted recently that some of the biggest spikes in Hispanic Centers have been taking place in communities with meat-packing facilities.)

Those community types with the most essential jobs are below the national average in educational attainment and median household income, with the communities with large minority populations scoring low on those education and income measures.

For the most part, these are not wealthy, highly-educated places and the communities with large minority populations in particular have high uninsured rates — all above 14% of the population.

The numbers all serve as important reminders as the pandemic stretches on and reaches more into rural areas. There may be more job security in some communities and types of communities, but that job security comes with added risks and challenges.



Vol. 3 2020-2021

Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

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