Even with COVID-19 requiring social distancing for the weeks or months to come, the United States still requires an enormous class of workers to keep essential services online. The Department of Homeland Security uses a sweeping definition of such essential industries, which collectively employed anywhere from 49 to 62 million workers prior to the COVID-19 outbreak according to our highest estimates. Many of these essential industries will see continued demand for their products and services, the inverse of other industries that cannot operate during a period of social distancing.
A portion of these essential workers will continue to report to their jobs at health care facilities, grocery stores, water utilities, and other work sites—all to ensure the rest of the country can maintain some semblance of a typical life during this health crisis. Yet many of the same workers were already at an economic disadvantage—generally earning lower wages and carrying less health-related insurance—before the crisis hit. In other words, it’s not just the total number of jobs that matters, but a better understanding of who these workers are and the risks they face.