Racial and ethnic differentials in COVID-19-related job exposures by occupational standing in the US

medRxiv. 2021 Apr 6;2020.11.13.20231431. doi: 10.1101/2020.11.13.20231431. Preprint


Researchers and journalists have argued that work-related factors may be partly responsible for disproportionate COVID-19 infection and death rates among vulnerable groups. We evaluate these claims by examining racial and ethnic differences in the likelihood of work-related exposure to COVID-19. We extend previous studies by considering 12 racial and ethnic groups and five types of potential occupational exposure to the virus: exposure to infection, physical proximity to others, face-to-face discussions, interactions with external customers and the public, and working indoors. Most importantly, we stratify our results by occupational standing, defined as the proportion of workers within each occupation with at least some college education. This measure serves as a proxy for whether workplaces and workers employ significant COVID-19-related risk reduction strategies. We use the 2018 American Community Survey to identify recent workers by occupation, and link 409 occupations to information on work context from the Occupational Information Network to identify potential COVID-related risk factors. We then examine the racial/ethnic distribution of all frontline workers and frontline workers at highest potential risk of COVID-19, by occupational standing and by sex. The results indicate that, contrary to expectation, White frontline workers are often overrepresented in high-risk jobs while Black and Latino frontline workers are generally underrepresented in these jobs. However, disaggregation of the results by occupational standing shows that, in contrast to Whites and several Asian groups, Latino and Black frontline workers are overrepresented in lower status occupations overall and in lower status occupations associated with high risk, and are thus less likely to have adequate COVID-19 protections. Our findings suggest that greater work exposures likely contribute to a higher prevalence of COVID-19 among Latino and Black adults and underscore the need for measures to reduce potential exposure for workers in low status occupations and for the development of programs outside the workplace.

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