UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center releases report on region's essential workers

Data shows region more reliant on essential workers – disproportionately low wage and female – than rest of state

A data brief from the Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth (PPC) shows that the SouthCoast region is more reliant on essential frontline workers as compared to the rest of Massachusetts. These workers earn less on average than the workforce as a whole, and many are women with caregiver responsibilities in the home, according to the analysis.

This segment of the region’s workforce includes workers in six crucial industries: building cleaning services; public transit; grocery, convenience and drug stores; health care; social services; and trucking, warehousing and postal services. Their work with the public to keep communities healthy, safe and functioning has put them at greater risk for COVID-19 than the general population, researchers say.

Reflecting on this analysis, Michael McCarthy, Senior Research Associate at the PPC, says, “Much of our past work at the Public Policy Center has demonstrated the inequity and high levels of poverty in our region relative to the state, and this is no exception. As we continue to deal with this crisis, the residents of the SouthCoast will be more reliant than before on our neighbors working these frontline industries—who are likely to earn wages below the regional average, and to be women with caregiver responsibilities at home.”

In 2018, an estimated 50,937 SouthCoast residents worked in essential industries, which represents more than one in four workers (26 percent of the region’s total workforce), compared to one in five workers (20 percent) statewide.

The region’s essential frontline workers earn much less than the average worker. The average annual wage for essential workers on the SouthCoast is about $27,000, compared to $48,293 for all SouthCoast workers. One in 10 essential workers earn a wage that is at or below the poverty level. Nearly three-quarters of essential workers earn less than $50,000 annually. Some of this disparity is because many in these industries work part-time and are also less likely to receive employer health care benefits.

Workers employed to clean buildings, a function crucial to maintaining a virus-free environment, are more likely to be immigrants and non-citizens, predominantly people of color. They are also more likely than other frontline workers to lack health insurance and access to health care.

Frontline workers are also more likely to be women earning a lower wage. Women are more likely to work as cashiers in grocery stores and provide direct patient care in nursing homes and similar settings. Women are also more likely to be family caregivers for children and elderly family members. This makes access to safe and high-quality childcare a vital concern to many essential workers, particularly when schools are closed.

“Our mission in the region is to provide vital information to decision makers, and this includes supporting those working to limit the pandemic’s human and public health impact,” said David Borges, PPC Director of Research. “Compiling and analyzing the data is just one part of this effort; increasing awareness on the part of all residents and developing plans of action to address these disparities is the ultimate goal.”

The full data brief can be found on the PPC’s website at

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