COVID’s Impact on Essential Workers in Homelessness

Disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, essential frontline workers have been the most at risk for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. Many of these workers are from low-income families and cannot afford to stay at home even in the midst of a global pandemic. While others were working from home, essential workers have been risking their health and lives. Many workers have not been provided the necessary equipment such as K95 masks, safety protection protocols, and/or fair wages.

In a survey done by the Bay Area Equity Atlas in 2020, out of the 1.1 million essential workers in the Bay Area, 66% were workers of color. Latinx workers accounted for 31% of essential workers, 67% of workers in building cleaning/waste management, and 63% of workers in agriculture. On the other hand, Black workers accounted for 6% of essential workers and 23% of public transit workers.

The Bay Equity Atlas found that frontline workers were more likely to live in or near poverty and care for children and other family members than non-frontline workers. Frontline workers were also more likely to be unable to afford their own homes.

In addition to low wages and unacceptable working conditions during the pandemic, essential workers have also been laid off in mass numbers, which leads to an increase in homelessness. Many employed workers faced homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers who are homeless and have shelter or no shelter are more likely to be exposed to the virus, as their circumstances do not protect them. Margot Kusher, Director of UCSF’s new Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, discusses how viruses operate within societal conditions. Because society has structures based on race, class, and other inequalities, essential workers have a higher likelihood of contracting the virus and passing it on to their families and other vulnerable workers.

What has been done so far to help essential workers facing homelessness?

The City of San Francisco has created and implemented a Front Line Worker Housing Program that provides temporary housing and shelter options for those directly affected by the COVID-19. The goal of the program is to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among essential frontline workers.

Despite the current work to contain the COVID-19 and address the homelessness of essential workers, there must be something done to combat the low wages and poor working conditions of these essential workers. If housing prices cannot be brought down for these workers, workers’ wages should be brought up. They need to have the ability to afford shelter for themselves and their families, especially during times of a global pandemic.


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