Supporting Essential Workers to Slow the Spread of COVID-19

Across the country, millions of employees are now deemed essential workers. From grocery cashiers to pharmacy technicians to gas station attendants, many are balancing protecting themselves and working in low-wage jobs that provide necessary services to American society at large.

There are also frontline workers, such as doctors, elder care workers, nurses and police officers who are helping in this fight by directly helping those most impacted by this virus. And we can’t forget our sanitation and public work departments, plumbers, electricians, package handlers and postal workers who continue to ensure delivery of essential services.  

Many of these frontline and essential workers are struggling financially, because of a household financial loss or because they are in a low-wage occupation. We must also consider the mental health impacts of being on the frontlines such as stress and anxiety as the pandemic continues to hit cities, towns, and villages across the United States.

Elected officials and business leaders can come together in the response phase of COVID-19 to offer essential workers assistance so the services we rely on remain available. As an elected official, you can work with business leaders to support community-grown initiatives, and influence long-term policy change such as increased wages, paid sick leave, and free transportation for essential workers. Here are measures communities around the country are taking to help alleviate our essential workers’ burden: 

Test for COVID-19 

Essential workers expose themselves daily. Expanding testing for essential workers who are at greater risk for transmission, helps them monitor their health and slows the spread of the disease. Detroit announced testing for COVID-19 will be available for essential workers, even those who don’t have symptoms. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, testing has also expanded 

If they’re sick, send them home – on sick leave

Many essential workers in low-wage jobs canafford to take unpaid time off. They are frequently in public-facing roles, poised to expose dozens – or hundreds – of people daily. The Center for Disease Control recommends flexible sick time, suggesting employees be allowed advances on future sick time or to donate sick time to others in need. In San Jose, an emergency bill requires companies to offer workers 14 days of sick leave if they have COVID-19. In New York, the city council proposed an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” that includes sick leave and hazard pay. 

Ensure they have personal protective equipment (PPE)

In some states or municipalitiesanyone leaving their homes must wear a face mask, and some retailers are now requiring employees to wear PPE, yet healthcare workers are wearing garbage bags. New York is calling on manufacturers to produce PPE, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union urged state and federal governments to consider grocery workers extended first respondersso they have priority access. PPE is a must for those whose duties bring them into others’ homes. Prior to entering the home, it is important for workers to understand household members’ health statusso precautions can be taken. Additionallythe workers’ health should be continually monitored, and they should wear PPE.

Provide childcare

Many daycares are closed to all but essential workers, but this doesn’t mean a daycare will remain open or affordable, especially if a spouse has been laid off. Additionally, some essential workers may have had private arrangements for childcare that are no longer available. In Houston, Texasofficials have established a website where essential workers can be matched with available daycares and apply for financial assistance. In San Diego County, councilmembers requested $5 million for childcare, and, in Illinois, state officials have made emergency childcare available to essential workers.

Help them get to work

In many larger cities, essential workers depend on public transitrepresenting an estimated 2.8 million riders, or roughly a third. With cities switching to shortened schedules amid cratering ridership, it makes it harder to get to work. In Boston, the Greater Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority reinstated early morning rail at healthcare workers’ request. Essential workers in low-wage jobs struggle to afford to go to work. In New York City, commuters now working from home set up a MetroCard swap to donate cards to in-need essential workers, and, in Seattle, King County Metro stopped collecting fares altogether.  

Keep them fed

Frontline healthcare workers have received meals and care packages, but essential workers strugglin an economy that shed 26 million jobs in five weeks. Many school districts initially continued to feed children, but some are faltering as school food service workers – another essential job – become ill. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a Coronavirus Food Assistance Program that will purchase $3 billion in produce, dairy and meat for distribution to food banks. The federal government also announced an additional $2 billion will be directed toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In Denver, residents founded “Feed the Frontlines Denver,” supporting local restaurants by purchasing meals for essential workers. Similar efforts have taken root in CaliforniaMichigan, and Virginia. 

This is an unprecedented ordeal for all residents citizens, but it would be that much worse without the services provided by essential workers. It is a shared duty to do what we can to alleviate their burden and sacrifice.  

About the Author

Bill Eller currently serves as vice president of Business Development at HomeServeprovider of the NLC Service Line Warranty Program. He is responsible for working with municipalities to develop the best program options for educating and protecting their residents.