May 6, 2020

Florida’s 2 Million Essential Workers: 5 Stark Realities and 5 Policy Solutions

Women, Black workers, and immigrants are overrepresented in the essential industries. These working people continue to steer Floridians through COVID-19.  Now is the time to repay essential workers.

Governor DeSantis has unveiled his plan to start Florida on the long road to COVID-19 recovery, but the crisis is not over. To mitigate further social and economic inequities, it is imperative that he and other state policymakers take swift action to support Floridians working in essential industries. This is especially important in South Florida, where stay-at-home orders remain in place, as the pandemic hit this part of the state the hardest.

A recent analysis of Census data by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) lends insight into who Florida’s frontline workers are — these are the nearly 2 million individuals deemed “essential” during this pandemic. (See Figure 1.) Twenty-one percent of working Floridians are employed in one of six frontline industries. More than half (nearly 1 million) are employed in health care, where inconsistent testing and lack of personal protective equipment remain a concern for staff and patients alike. One in four essential workers are employed in the grocery/convenience/drug store industry, which encompasses fast food, retail, pharmacy, and related customer service settings. The remainder work in trucking/warehouse/postal, building cleaning services, childcare/social services, and public transit.   

Five Key Facts about Florida’s Essential Workforce

1. Most are women.

Though less than half of all working Floridians are women, they represent 63 percent of the state’s essential workers (1.23 million). Moreover, women make up the majority in two of the six industries — childcare/social services (87 percent of workers) and health care (76 percent). These helping professions are emotionally (and often, physically) taxing under typical circumstances, which have been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While health care can be a lucrative profession for some, social workers, domestic workers, and others in childcare/social services have historically been undervalued and underpaid.

2. Nearly 1 in 3 are immigrants. 

Nationally, just 17 percent of essential workers are immigrants, but in Florida, immigrants comprise nearly one-third (28 percent) of all essential workers (See Figure 2.). Not only are immigrants overrepresented overall, but they comprise at least 20 percent of each of the six essential industries. As with Latinx individuals, the highest proportion of working immigrants is in building cleaning services.

The other top essential industries for immigrant workers are trucking/warehouse/postal and health care, where immigrants represent 29 percent and 27 percent of industry workers, respectively. This sends a clear message that foreign-born Floridians contribute greatly to the state economy and will continue to do so long after the COVID-19 crisis has ended. Instead of excluding immigrants from COVID-19 relief, leaders should promote shared prosperity through more inclusive policies, like the walk-up testing sites, which advocates secured for Immokalee workers unable to social distance. 

3. Black Floridians are overrepresented.

Black Floridians make up 22 percent of all essential workers, but just 16 percent of the total state workforce. The top essential industry for Black workers is public transit (34 percent of workers), followed by childcare/social services and health care (23 percent each). White Floridians still make up most workers in each essential industry (and the workforce overall), except for building cleaning services, where most (45 percent) of these workers are Latinx. Notably, where Black Floridians are overrepresented among essential workers, white Floridians are underrepresented; more than half of all workers in the state are white, but fewer than half of essential workers are. This shows that communities of color are more likely to bear the burden that frontline work brings. Moreover, decades of research show that Black individuals are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like asthma and diabetes that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, and early state data shows Black Floridians in South Florida are dying at faster rates from the virus than white residents.  

4. Half a million earn less than $25,520 per year ($491 per week).

Upwards of 1 in 4 essential workers earns less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, $25,520 annually (See Figure 4.) Compared to the workforce overall, essential workers are more likely to hit this low wage ceiling. Those working in building cleaning services (largely Latinx and immigrant workers) are more likely to earn lower wages than other essential workers. This remains true despite the majority of essential workers (64 percent) having attended or completed college. While those with advanced training (e.g. doctors, nurses) could be skewing this education figure, the fact remains that most people working on the frontlines are educated and everyone deserves a living wage. A true living wage in Florida is anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000 annually, depending on the number of household members and their work status. There is no doubt that these Floridians are essential to public health and the state economy, yet public and private employers alike continue to deny too many a wage that better reflects their contributions.

5. They are more likely to have children or seniors relying on them at home.

More than one-third of Floridians in essential industries have children at home, a higher proportion than the rest of the workforce. They are also more likely to be caregivers to adults aged 65 and older. Those most likely to have children at home are people working in childcare/social services (35 percent of the industry). Thus, they spend an entire workday caring for others professionally, then return home to care for their families. This emotional labor can be detrimental to individuals’ physical and mental health, which the COVID-19 crisis has threatened further. Moreover, since most children have not been in school or daycare during the pandemic, essential workers are struggling to maintain a work-life balance. Furthermore, the sheer number of direct contacts frontline workers have with the public means those who live with them — especially older adults and others with chronic medical issues — are at higher risk for contracting the virus.

Five Ways Lawmakers Can Support Essential Workers Right Now

This data only provides a small glimpse into who Florida’s essential workers are, but the picture these demographics display is clear. Close to 2 million Floridians and a disproportionate number of women, immigrants, and people of color carry out this crucial work to serve the public every day. Too many earn too little and many more have others at home relying on them when their workday ends. COVID-19 did not create this reality; it merely illuminated it. Although the governor has taken some measures to support Floridians in need, he has also reopened parts of the state, so it is likely Florida has yet to fully witness the ramifications of this crisis.

It is high time policymakers move their recognition of essential workers from lip service to concrete support. In the short-term, lawmakers can and should:

  • Increase childcare subsidies and loosen income ceilings until schools are reopened to lessen the parenting burden on working Floridians.
  • Reduce the Florida Department of Elder Affairs waitlist so more older adults can receive state-funded home- and community-based care, lessening the caregiving burden on their loved ones working in essential industries. More than 50,000 Floridians and their caregivers languish in waiting.
  • Co-sponsor the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act so more than 100,000 women, immigrants, and people of color can have access to overtime, hazard pay, and other worker protections.
  • Provide personal protective equipment and free testing to all essential workers, regardless of immigration status. Currently, fewer than 2 percent of Florida’s 20+ million residents have been tested.
  • Urge the federal government to authorize D-SNAP (Disaster-Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and loosen restrictions on related programs, so that more essential workers — including immigrants — can benefit from food stamps/nutrition assistance.

It remains unclear what the COVID-19 crisis will look like in Florida several months down the road. But one thing is certain — lawmakers must implement the common-sense measures listed above to protect the health and safety not only of Florida’s frontline workers, but of everyone who calls the Sunshine State home.

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