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Essential Workers in US – About half of all workers in low-paid occupations

Using our colleagues Adie Tomer and Joseph W. Kane’s essential worker classification and 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we find that essential workers comprised approximately half (47%) of all workers in occupations with a median wage of less than $15 an hour.

In 2018, 47.7 million U.S. workers were in occupations with a median wage of less than $15 per hour. Of these 47.7 million workers, 22.3 million were in occupations considered “essential” per Tomer and Kane’s analysis of Department of Homeland Security guidance.


Today, essential workers likely comprise an even larger share of the low-wage workforce. According to data from Opportunity Insights, unemployment during the pandemic has jumped 21% for low-wage workers earning under $27,000 a year. Most of those job losses have been concentrated among nonessential industries such as hospitality and leisure. Now, among a smaller group of low-wage workers still employed during the pandemic, it is likely that essential workers comprise even more than half of all workers in occupations with a median wage of less than $15 per hour.


The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the indignity that millions of essential workers face, as they perform jobs vital to the country without earning a wage that allows them to meet their basic expenses. Even as low-wage essential workers perform jobs that allow the rest of us to survive, their meager pay makes it difficult for millions of them to survive.

Yvette Beatty, a home health aide in Philadelphia, is one of them. Beatty cares for some of society’s most vulnerable people during the pandemic, but she struggles to provide for her own family of six. With only her “itty, bitty” pay of $12.75 an hour, she has had to make difficult choices between medicine and food as she struggles to keep up with her bills.

“It’s very hard,” Beatty told us this fall. “Thank God for noodles. We are eating just what we can right now.”

Beatty is not alone. The wages for care workers like her are so low that nearly 20% of them live in poverty, and more than 40% rely on some form of public assistance.

In the grocery sector, meanwhile, a typical cashier makes just $10 to $11 an hour—a wage that would put a family of four below the poverty line.

Lisa Harris, a Kroger cashier outside of Richmond, Va., described the financial hardships her grocery colleagues experience: “I have coworkers who stand all day serving people, and then have to go pay for their own groceries with food stamps.”

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story @ Essential workers comprise about half of all workers in low-paid occupations. They deserve a $15 minimum wage.


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