During the pandemic, as much of the world's economy slows and people are urged to stay home, a cadre of essential workers is engaging in vital tasks with risk to themselves and their loved ones. These workers include workers in diverse healthcare jobs and settings, grocery and restaurant employees, gas station attendants, delivery drivers, police officers, firefighters, security guards, janitors, trash collectors, social workers, and a range of government employees, among others. This crisis has highlighted the essential nature of their work and exposed the fact that many of these workers are now risking their lives for low wages, thus revealing an extreme contradiction in our system - essential work often does not receive essential pay (Sperling, 2020). Economists estimate that, with the additional $600/week in unemployment benefits offered through the CARES Act, about half of U.S. workers will receive more in unemployment benefits than they did at their jobs (Morath, 2020). While some might suggest this indicates that unemployment relief is overly generous, social workers recognize this as an indication that these jobs paid too little in the first place. Because essential workers are disproportionately women and people of color, these groups also are disproportionately shouldering these health risks, highlighting a troubling manifestation of ongoing gender and racial oppression. In addition, many who have lost work during the pandemic are gig economy workers, who are often unable to access government support because of the precarious nature of their jobs. Lastly, the current crisis has heightened the level of uncertainty experienced by many young workers, who are disproportionately represented among service sector jobs most severely impacted by COVID-19 (Kochhar & Barroso, 2020).
This roundtable brings together social work researchers examining precarious working conditions of those employed across labor sectors, including workers in healthcare, retail and food services, postal services, gig economy workers, and social workers themselves. We will identify and assess the impact of employment precarity including low wages, poor benefits, scheduling unpredictability and truncated career trajectory on workers as well as their families and communities. Discussion will focus on lessons learned from decades of employee- and employer-focused scholarship on employment conditions, and consider how social work researchers can contribute important knowledge and advocacy to support low-wage and other vulnerable workers during this uncertain time.