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UW study: 75% of US workers can’t work exclusively from home, face greater risks during COVID-19 pandemic

The study by University of Washington found that the majority of U.S. workers are in jobs that cannot be done from home during a pandemic, leaving them vulnerable.

SEATTLE — The University of Washington has released a study showing about 75% of U.S. workers, or 108 million people, are in jobs that cannot be done from home during a pandemic, putting them at increased risk for exposure to COVID-19.

The majority of those workers are also at higher risk for other job disruptions such as layoffs, furloughs or reduced hours, and they represent some of the lowest-paid workers in the workforce, according to Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences and the author of the study.

“This pandemic has really exacerbated existing vulnerabilities in American society, with workers most affected by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders being significantly lower-paid and now also at increased risk for mental health outcomes associated with job insecurity and displacement, in addition to increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 if they keep going to work,” said Baker.

The remaining 25% of U.S. workers, or 35.6 million people, are in jobs that can be done at home. Those jobs are usually in highly-paid occupational sectors such as finance, administration, computer, engineering and technology, said the study. As the economy begins to reopen, Baker said these workers will continue to be better protected from exposure to COVID-19 and disruptions to their jobs.

“The most privileged workers will have a job that can be done at home, reducing their risk of exposure, and enabling them to continue to work even as office buildings were closed. Unfortunately, only a quarter of the U.S. workforce falls into this category. The fact that these are some of the highest-paid workers in the U.S. is no surprise,” Baker added.

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Those workers will also have an increased ability to care for a child at home, which continues to grow the disparity between the top quarter of the workforce and the rest, the study found.

The study was published on June 18 in the American Journal of Public Health. 

Baker said she examined the 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data characterizing the importance of interacting with the public and the importance of using a computer at work to understand which workers could work from home during a pandemic and which would experience disruptions due to COVID-19.

“The workers for whom computer use is not important at work but interactions with the public is are some of the lowest-paid workers,” Baker said. “And during this pandemic, they face compounding risks of exposure to COVID-19, job loss and adverse mental health outcomes associated with job loss.”

“These results underscore the important role that work plays in public health. Workplace policies and practices enacted during a pandemic event or other public health emergency should aim to establish and maintain secure employment and living wages for all workers and consider both physical and mental health outcomes, even after the emergency subsides,” Baker said.

To read more about the study, click here.

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