Blue-collar workers faced bigger health risks and fewer opportunities to minimize their exposure during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new study, underscoring the ongoing economic disparities in the U.S.
These workers were twice as likely to contract COVID-19 than their white-collar counterparts, according to Joblist, a job searching website, and only 16% are still working remotely compared to 49% of white-collar workers.
“It makes sense,” Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), told Yahoo Money. “When you think about who is being made to go to work, those people oftentimes have less power in the workplace."
Additionally, 71.3% of blue-collar workers reported considering changing jobs during the pandemic, versus 53% of white-collar workers.
“A lot of it has to do with power,” Gould said. “People who have been able to negotiate for themselves, higher wages and better benefits, are also the ones who are able to work from the safety of their own home."
Gould noted that some front-line essential workers have received improved safety and health standards in the workplace, especially those with unions that have more leverage in workplace negotiations.
"But for many people, they haven’t been able to enjoy the privileges that many white-collar workers have enjoyed over the last year," she said. "It’s just another sign of what the disparities in the workplace mean for people who are able to continue getting their paycheck and not risk their health.”
'You're also talking about race'
Many blue-collar jobs have been considered “essential” during the pandemic. Data from EPI shows that people of color make up the majority of essential workers in food and agriculture and in industrial, commercial, residential facilities, and services.
“When you think about lower-paid workers, we’re not just talking about income disparities and power,” Gould said. “You’re also talking about race."
The erosion of labor standards, such as not raising the minimum wage or making it harder for workers to unionize for better benefits, hurt Black and Hispanic workers, Gould pointed out.
"It’s important to keep that in the conversation as well," she said.
These communities of color have also been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in terms of health. Despite making up less than 50% of the population, Black Americans are 2.9 times as likely as their white counterparts to have been hospitalized for COVID-19. Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely to be hospitalized and American Indian/Alaska Natives are 3.7 times are likely, according to government data.
Similarly, blue-collar workers have tested positive more than white-collar ones, the Joblist survey found.
“This shows in a very direct way how the pandemic has had an outsized impact on blue-collar workers," Kevin Harrington, Joblist CEO, told Yahoo Money, "who for the most part have not had the luxury of working from home indefinitely."
Harrington also noted the Joblist findings, which indicated that blue-collar workers were more likely to report always wearing a mask outside the home than white-collar workers.
“The majority of blue-collar jobs must be performed in person,” he said. “As the pandemic interrupted in-person business operations, workers in these jobs became more vulnerable to layoffs. Meanwhile, many white-collar workers were able to shift to remote work with little to no change to their daily work online.”
Leveling the playing field
Only 23% of the workforce is teleworking, Gould said.
“It’s not as widespread as people might think,” Gould said. “Clearly, it is people that are higher-income, higher-wage professionals — white-collar class — who are much more likely to be able to do that because their jobs don’t have direct service with the public.”
Blue-collar jobs vary, but include occupations like front-line restaurant workers, grocery store employees, transit workers, or construction workers. Three-quarters of those who have to go into work are more likely to be in one of these types of jobs.
“Many blue-collar jobs either cannot be done from home or can only be done in a limited way,” Harrington said. “This makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for blue-collar workers to work from home for an extended period."
So how can the U.S. address this issue? According to Gould, labor unions need to play a big part of it.
“Having a union or having a minimum wage, being able to collectively bargain, gives you more power to set standards in the workplace,” Gould said. “The ability to work from home, the ability to get enough hours that you need, the ability to get them paid sick days, that additional leverage can help level the playing field.”
Other steps include lowering the cost of child care, prioritizing access to affordable housing and health care, improving educational and training opportunities, and mass job creation initiatives, Harrington said.
“By all accounts, the pandemic has only exacerbated the inequality gap,” he said.
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.