What is COVID-19 and how is it affecting white and blue-collar workers differently?

The coronavirus health crisis is getting serious: closed educational centers, sporting events without an audience, conferences, congresses and appointments, canceled cultures and many empty companies with their workers working from home. These restrictive measures have put many citizens on guard, and raised a concern of how their lives will change now that the pandemic is affecting their work.

While white collar workers avoiding exposure can work from home or call in sick if they experience symptoms of the virus, that’s not an option for the millions of blue collar workers such as waiters, delivery workers, cashiers, ride-hailing drivers, museum attendants and countless others who routinely come into contact with the public. Their dilemma is also further worsened by bad sick leave policies or inadequate health insurance coverage, leaving them vulnerable to the fast-spreading coronavirus that has already claimed thousands of lives and put them in a financially detrimental positions.

The recommendations on what people should be doing to protect themselves really gives a sharp indication of the divide between white collar and blue collar workers. Missing work because of illness may mean missing a paycheck. Our social safety net is just not equipped at this moment to deal with a crisis like this, and it will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable low wage workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 29% of U.S. workers have the option of working from home, which means retail workers must look out after themselves. For example, a cashier in Atlanta serves hundreds of people a day and her big worry is what will happen to her income if she is infected with the virus or comes in contact with someone who’s had it and must self-quarantine for 14 days.

In the United States, about 27% of private sector workers don’t have access to paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The people who make and serve food, deliver goods, work in large factories, and keep retail stores open could face serious impacts from a coronavirus outbreak. Barbers, fast food workers, housekeeping, and sanitation workers all work in close physical proximity to customers or in environments that place them at risk of exposure to the virus. Retail salespersons, concierges, restaurant servers, and cashiers all work directly with the public, putting them into potential exposure with those infected with the coronavirus.

So what can your employer and you do at work to protect yourself from exposure? The Center for Control Disease has given the following guidelines:

  • Separate sick employees:

  • CDC recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately. Sick employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available).

  • Emphasize respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees:

  • Encourage employees to wear gloves and to stay six feet away from each other.

  • Avoid having meetings with multiple people in one room.

  • Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Soap and water should be used preferentially if hands are visibly dirty.

  • Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace. Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained. Place hand rubs in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage hand hygiene.

  • Place posters that encourage cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the entrance to your workplace and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen.

  • Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.

  • Visit the coughing and sneezing etiquette and clean hands webpage for more information.

  • Perform routine environmental cleaning:

  • Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label.

  • Deep cleaning every other day is ideal at this time.

  • Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.

For more information, please visit the Center for Control Disease and Prevention Website.