In the face of a pandemic, they keep our communities running.
They care for the sick and fill prescriptions. They deliver goods and stock the shelves in stores and supermarkets. They prepare food, deliver mail and drive city buses. For them, working from home isn’t an option.
They are, of course, essential workers. And according to my analysis of local census data, more often than not, they are women.
While women make up less than half (46%) of the total working population in the Seattle metropolitan area (King, Snohomish and Pierce counties), they represent 63% of workers in occupations deemed essential.
To do this analysis, I borrowed the approach used in a report on the demographics of U.S. essential workers by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based progressive think tank.
The methodology uses census data to identify industries in which many of the jobs would typically be considered essential. These industries can be combined into six major groupings: health care; grocery, convenience and drugstores; child care and social services; trucking, warehouse and Postal Service; building cleaning services; and public transit.
This methodology isn’t perfect. It misses some occupations that are considered essential, such as police and firefighters. Conversely, it includes some jobs that don’t belong. For example, school bus drivers aren’t considered essential workers, but they get lumped together with Metro bus drivers in the public transit category.
Even given its limitations, this approach covers the bulk of essential workers, who number more than 360,000 workers in the Seattle metro area, or about 18% of the total workforce.
About 229,000 of our essential workers are female. The main reason women are so overrepresented is the health care industry, which employs nearly half of all essential workers. And in our metro area, 74% of health care workers are female. Women make up the majority of employees in health care fields across the board, from those in hospitals and physicians’ offices to care facilities to home health care services.
Women are also overrepresented in two smaller industry groups: Child care and social services (82% female workers), and cleaning services to buildings and dwellings (56% female workers).
But men are overrepresented in two other industry groups with many essential workers: Trucking, warehouse and Postal Service (78% male workers) and public transit (74% male workers).
Seattle is not unique in this regard. We see similar gender imbalances in these essential occupations at the national level.
Overall, people of color are more likely to work in essential-industry jobs. White people make up nearly 67% of the total workforce in our area, but represent just about 60% of essential-industry workers. White workers are underrepresented in each category except one: public transit.
One surprising finding is that Hispanic people are not overrepresented among essential workers. The data shows that Hispanic people make up 9% of the Seattle area’s total workforce, and 9% of those workers considered essential.
Hispanic people have a very high rate of infection for COVID-19 in Washington. One reason that is often cited to explain this is that Hispanic people are a lot more likely to be employed in essential occupations, which increases the risk of exposure to the virus compared with those who can work from home. But the data doesn’t support this particular explanation.
However, there is one category of essential work that is heavily dominated by Hispanic people: cleaning services to buildings and dwellings. Nearly one-third of all workers in this industry grouping are Hispanic.
Black people are the racial/ethic group that is most overrepresented among essential workers. In our metro area, Black workers make up 5% of the total workforce but represent 9% of essential workers. In particular, there are two categories where Black employees are highly overrepresented: public transit (17% Black workers) and child care and social services (13% Black).
Asian/Pacific Islander workers make up 14% of the total workforce in our metro area, and represent 16% of essential workers. These workers are most overrepresented in the trucking, warehouse and Postal Service industry grouping, at 19% of all workers. But this is largely due to just the Postal Service, in which Asian/Pacific Islander workers make up 39% of the total workforce.
Overall, essential workers are less likely to have graduated from college or received a graduate degree than the Seattle-area workforce as a whole. But there are some essential occupations — physicians and nurses, for example — that require an advanced degree. Front-line workers are also a little more likely to be immigrants.
In New York City, the Office of the Comptroller used the same methodology to work up a report on the demographics of their essential workers. The findings were pretty similar to the Seattle area.
That report concluded that the city’s essential workers should be supported in a variety of ways, including being provided with free protective gear, access to hotel rooms close to work, guaranteed health care, free child care and pathways to citizenship for those who are not citizens.