Essential and Frontline Workers in the COVID-19 Crisis (Updated)

By , and ·March 22, 2022
Cornell University, Montana State University, and DIW Berlin / Universität Hamburg

Bar chart compares the composition of essential and frontline workers to the employed population in December of 2020. While the composition of essential workers very closely resembles the general workforce, frontline workers are relatively more likely to be members of a racial minority, have lower levels of education and earn lower wages.

The Issue:

Essential workers, who are vital for the core functions of the economy and society, have made vital contributions throughout the pandemic. But not all essential workers face the same level of risk of infection. Some of these workers are “frontline” and must provide their labor in person while others can work from home. Here we update our April 2020 EconoFact Memo that analyzed the characteristics of essential workers, and a subcategory of this group, frontline workers, with more recent data and using revised guidelines issued by the government. We continue to find that the broader group of essential workers comprises a large share of the labor force and tends to mirror its demographic characteristics. In contrast, the narrower category of frontline workers, on average, is less educated, has lower wages, and has a higher representation of minorities, especially Hispanics, and immigrants.

Frontline workers earn lower wages on average and are more likely to be members of minority groups than the overall workforce.

The Facts:

  • Essential workers comprise a large and varied group. We use the official industry guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to identify the broad group of workers “who conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continued critical infrastructure viability.” The industries they support represent, but are not limited to, medicine and healthcare, telecommunications, information technology systems, defense, food and agriculture, transportation and logistics, energy, water and wastewater, law enforcement, public works, and education. Using information from the 2018 and 2019 American Community Survey, we find that these essential workers represent about 82 percent of all workers and are as a group quite similar to the labor force as a whole. As compared to the overall workforce, essential workers represent: about the same share of women (46% vs. 47%); similar average wages ($27.03 vs. $27.05), with about the same share earning low wages and high wages (in the bottom and top quartiles of the overall wage distribution, respectively); and a similar distribution across broad occupational groups.
  • “Frontline” workers are also a varied group but receive lower wages on average and come disproportionately from socio-economically disadvantaged groups compared to the overall workforce. We identify frontline workers as a subcategory of essential workers in occupation groups where a large majority of workers (over 70%) cannot feasibly work from home. Frontline workers include, but are not limited to, healthcare workers, protective service workers (police and EMS), cashiers in grocery and general merchandise stores, production and food processing workers, janitors and maintenance workers, agricultural workers, truck drivers, and educators. These workers constitute 64% of essential workers and 52% of all workers. Women are a somewhat lower percentage of frontline workers (43%) than of all workers but a bigger share in many specific frontline occupations such as healthcare and education. Average wages of frontline workers ($23.16) are lower than those of all workers and essential workers. A higher share of frontline workers earns low wages (in the bottom quartile) and a smaller share earns high wages (in the top quartile). They are on average less well educated than all workers, with a higher share comprised of high school dropouts and a lower share having at least a four-year college degree. They also have a higher share of minorities, particularly Hispanics, and immigrants.
  • Changes in the essential and frontline workforce over time. As the pandemic progressed, the DHS updated their guidelines between March 2020 and December 2020 (later updates are similar to the v4 guidelines issued in December 2020). The most significant change in the federal guidelines defining essential and thus also frontline workers was the addition of the education sector. Education moved almost universally to virtual instruction in the Spring of 2020, excluding educators from the essential and frontline definitions. By Fall 2020 and into 2021, however, many districts and institutions had moved to mixed or in-person instruction, or moved back and forth as variants and surges occurred. Because educators are highly educated, the main difference between March frontline workers and December frontline workers is that 26% of December frontline workers hold a BA or higher while this was true of only 19% of March frontline workers. Overall, however, frontline workers remain less well educated than all workers. The inclusion of workers in the education sector also increased the share of frontline workers who are female, from 39 to 43 percent, but this remains below the female share of all workers. While there are some differences, our overall conclusions regarding the composition of frontline workers remain the same using the December as the March definitions: frontline workers are, on average, a less educated group with a higher representation of men, disadvantaged minorities (especially Hispanics), and immigrants, and are lower paid than all workers with a larger share in the low wage quartile. (For additional details see here).
  • Educators represent 12 percent of all frontline workers. As a whole, educators are more female (72%), more white (72%), and more educated (81% hold a BA or higher) than the labor force as a whole as well as other essential and frontline workers. The well-above average percent female is driven by the large share who are employees in primary and secondary schools, 78% of whom are female. Educators earn slightly above average wages overall and have a lower share of low wage workers, with workers in colleges, universities, and professional schools earning well above average wages.  
  • Healthcare workers represent 17 percent of all frontline workers. This includes the relatively high-paying, highly educated group comprised of healthcare practitioners and those in technical occupations (e.g. doctors, registered nurses and pharmacists – about three quarters of all healthcare workers) as well as health-support workers (e.g. nursing assistants and home health aides – about one-quarter of all healthcare workers). Health-support workers are a relatively less well-educated, relatively low-wage group. Women comprise a majority of health care practitioners (75%), although the majority of doctors are men. Women represent an even larger proportion of health support workers (86%). The majority of health-support workers are non-white (55%, including 25% black and 20% Hispanic). 
  • Essential sales and related occupations represent 13 percent of frontline workers. Women constitute a little under half of all workers in this occupation group, but a quarter of workers employed in this category are in predominantly female occupations. Overall, the average wage ($25.82) is slightly below that for all workers and an above average share earns wages in the bottom quartile. Almost a quarter of workers in this group are cashiers at essential retailers such as grocery stores and general merchandise stores. Cashiers are 71% female, 51% non-white, and 62% earn wages in the lowest quartile of all workers.
  • A number of heavily male, mostly blue-collar categories together employ 45 percent of workers in frontline occupations. These occupations include transportation and material moving occupations (12% of frontline workers), production occupations (9%), construction and extraction (9%), building and grounds cleaning and maintenance (5%), installation maintenance and repair (5%), as well as farming, fishing and forestry occupations (1%). Average wages for essential workers in these occupation groups are substantially below the average for all workers. Protective service occupations such as police and EMS workers (4% of frontline workers), another predominantly male category, earn about the same wage as the average for all workers.
  • Essential workers in shutdown industries. Importantly, the designation of "essential" means needed but does not speak to scale (how many are needed) so it does not adjust for industries identified as essential that were shutdown or running under limited demand at the height of the lockdown in March/April 2020. For example, while the airline industry is absolutely essential, it was scaled down due to travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and decreases in demand. Similarly, food preparers and servers are essential workers due to their role in food provision but closures occurred and employment was scaled down dramatically due to public health measures and decreases in demand for in-restaurant dining. When we excluded shutdown or reduced industries early in the pandemic, the average wage of the remaining essential workers was somewhat higher ($28.42) but other characteristics of essential workers were almost identical to the characteristics cited above.
  • Childcare is of vital concern to many frontline workers. Meeting the childcare needs of frontline workers continues to be extremely challenging at a time when schools and day care centers are understaffed and may close with little warning. This is a particular problem for women since they tend to bear the major responsibility for child care in most married couple families and single mothers often do not have another adult to rely on. As we have observed, women are substantially represented among frontline workers, especially in healthcare, education, and retail occupations, adding to the importance of this issue. For example, 23 percent of health-support workers are single mothers (as compared to 8% of both all frontline workers and all workers).

What this Means:

Essential workers have been called on to meet our basic needs during the COVID-19 crisis. A significant portion of these workers, frontline workers, cannot work remotely. On average, frontline workers are disproportionately comprised of less educated and minority workers, especially Hispanics, and immigrants. They earn below average wages and have a substantial share of workers in the bottom wage quartile. Thus, the provision of hazard pay to these workers may be merited both because of the risks they take by remaining on their jobs as well on equity grounds. Other benefits should also be considered including support for the childcare needs of these workers, paid sick leave, coverage of COVID-19 health expenses for those who lack health insurance, and death benefits to the families of those who have died of the virus.

  • Editor's note: This is an updated version of a post originally published on April 30, 2020. The original article can be accessed here. The research in this article is based on Blau, F.D., Koebe, J. & Meyerhofer, P.A. "Who are the essential and frontline workers?", Bus Econ 56, 168–178 (2021).

  • Topics:

    Coronavirus / Employment
    Written by The EconoFact Network. To contact with any questions or comments, please email [email protected].
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