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Who are the essential and frontline workers?


  • Francine D. Blau

    (Cornell University and NBER)

  • Josefine Koebe

    (Universität Hamburg and DIW Berlin)

  • Pamela A. Meyerhofer

    (Montana State University)


Identifying essential and frontline workers and understanding their characteristics is useful for policymakers and researchers in targeting social insurance and safety net policies in response to the COVID-19 crisis and allocating scarce resources like personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccines. We develop a working definition and provide data on the demographic and labor market composition of these workers. We first apply the official industry guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in March 2020 to microdata from the 2018 and 2019 American Community Survey to identify essential workers regardless of actual operation status of their industry. We then use the feasibility of work from home in the worker’s occupation group (Dingel and Neiman 2020) to identify those most likely to be frontline workers who worked in-person early in the COVID-19 crisis in March/April 2020. In a third step, we exclude industries that were shut down or running under limited demand at that time (Vavra 2020). We find that the broader group of essential workers comprises a large share of the labor force and tends to mirror its demographic and labor market characteristics. In contrast, the narrower category of frontline workers is, on average, less educated, has lower wages, and has a higher representation of men, disadvantaged minorities, especially Hispanics, and immigrants. These results hold even when excluding industries that were shut down or operating at a limited level. Results for essential and frontline workers are similar when accounting for changes in the federal guidelines over time by using the December 2020 guidelines which include a few additional groups of workers, including the education sector.

Suggested Citation

  • Francine D. Blau & Josefine Koebe & Pamela A. Meyerhofer, 2021. "Who are the essential and frontline workers?," Business Economics, Palgrave Macmillan;National Association for Business Economics, vol. 56(3), pages 168-178, July.
  • Handle: RePEc:pal:buseco:v:56:y:2021:i:3:d:10.1057_s11369-021-00230-7
    DOI: 10.1057/s11369-021-00230-7

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Dingel, Jonathan I. & Neiman, Brent, 2020. "How many jobs can be done at home?," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 189(C).
    2. Laura Montenovo & Xuan Jiang & Felipe Lozano Rojas & Ian M. Schmutte & Kosali I. Simon & Bruce A. Weinberg & Coady Wing, 2020. "Determinants of Disparities in Covid-19 Job Losses," NBER Working Papers 27132, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Sumedha Gupta & Laura Montenovo & Thuy D. Nguyen & Felipe Lozano Rojas & Ian M. Schmutte & Kosali I. Simon & Bruce A. Weinberg & Coady Wing, 2020. "Effects of Social Distancing Policy on Labor Market Outcomes," NBER Working Papers 27280, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    2. Dütsch, Matthias, 2022. "COVID-19 and the labour market: What are the working conditions in critical jobs?," Journal for Labour Market Research, Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung (IAB), Nürnberg [Institute for Employment Research, Nuremberg, Germany], vol. 56, pages 1-10.
    3. Albanesi, Stefania & Kim, Jiyeon, 2021. "The Gendered Impact of the COVID-19 Recession on the US Labor Market," CEPR Discussion Papers 15838, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    4. Matthias Dütsch, 2022. "COVID-19 and the labour market: What are the working conditions in critical jobs?," Journal for Labour Market Research, Springer;Institute for Employment Research/ Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung (IAB), vol. 56(1), pages 1-17, December.
    5. Marcella Alsan & Amitabh Chandra & Kosali Simon, 2021. "The Great Unequalizer: Initial Health Effects of COVID-19 in the United States," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 35(3), pages 25-46, Summer.
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    21. Lauren A. Clay & Stephanie Rogus, 2021. "Impact of Employment, Essential Work, and Risk Factors on Food Access during the COVID-19 Pandemic in New York State," IJERPH, MDPI, vol. 18(4), pages 1-12, February.
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    More about this item


    COVID-19; Essential workers; Frontline workers; Race and gender differences; Occupational risk;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • J15 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Economics of Minorities, Races, Indigenous Peoples, and Immigrants; Non-labor Discrimination
    • J16 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Economics of Gender; Non-labor Discrimination
    • J21 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Labor Force and Employment, Size, and Structure


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