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A Profile of Frontline Workers in Massachusetts

By Luc Schuster and Trevor Mattos

April 13, 2020

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Earlier this month we released a research brief estimating that roughly 1 million Massachusetts workers were at especially high risk of job loss entering the COVID-19 crisis. They work in sectors most likely shut down because of stay-at-home orders—restaurants, retail, travel, etc. Other workers are in jobs that can at least partially be done from home, and they’ve been a bit more protected from immediate economic pain. But another set of workers is continuing to serve in key frontline industries and, by and large, their jobs require them to be out in the community, interacting with people rather than working safely from home. Frontline workers are essential workers, making vital contributions every day. The COVID crisis highlights how much we depend on these workers, even outside of moments of crisis. The crisis has also drawn attention to the low wages for many of these workers, even though they deliver some of the most critical goods and services we need to get by each day.

This research brief provides a demographic profile of these frontline workers and compares them to the rest of our state’s workforce.

There are about 800,000 frontline workers in Massachusetts, over half of whom work in health care.

Frontline workers ensure that essential services continue functioning. They are doctors, nurses and other health care professionals directly caring for patients with COVID-19 (note: we’ve excluded non-essential health care workers like dentists and chiropractors, who are much less likely to be working right now). Frontline workers also include grocery and drug store workers, who provide us with food and medicine. They include janitors and other cleaning staff, many of whom are working overtime to clean spaces at risk of contamination. They also include transit workers driving buses and trains so that nurses, doctors and other frontline workers can get to their jobs.

Since this analysis uses broad industry groups, these numbers are only rough estimates. We include all child care workers, for instance, even though many are not actually working directly with children right now. Some emergency child care centers are open, but most regular public and private programs have been ordered closed by the governor. On the other hand, many public safety workers like firefighters and police officers remain working right now, but are not included in this analysis.

Frontline workers are less highly educated.

Just under half of all Massachusetts workers have a four-year college degree. However, that share is much lower in most frontline industries. Fewer than one in five Grocery, Convenience & Drug Store workers, Public Transit workers, Trucking, Warehouse & Postal Service workers and Building Cleaning Services workers have four-year college degrees.

Frontline workers are a bit more likely to be immigrants, especially those in Building Cleaning Services.

People working in Building Cleaning Services are almost three times as likely to be foreign born as workers overall (59 percent vs 20 percent). A significant portion of these immigrant janitors and cleaners do not have formal immigration status and have been excluded from most state and federal recovery programs like expanded unemployment insurance. These workers are also almost three times as likely not to have health insurance. Massachusetts has a very low rate of workers without health insurance (3.3 percent) but, even in Massachusetts, almost 10 percent of workers in Building Cleaning Services are uninsured (see table at the end of this brief for more detail).

Health care workers are also a bit more likely to be foreign born. In fact, during the current health crisis, Governor Baker has partially relaxed the rules regarding licensing of health care professionals to allow more foreign-born doctors trained abroad to join the fight against the virus.

Frontline workers are more likely to be people of color.

Our state workforce is 25 percent people of color, but those in frontline industries are 32 percent people of color. The three frontline industry clusters most likely to be staffed by people of color are Building Cleaning Services workers, Public Transit workers, and Child Care & Social Services workers.

Frontline workers are more likely to be female. Two-thirds of frontline workers in Massachusetts are female, as compared to roughly half the overall workforce. While Public Transit and Trucking, Warehousing, & Postal Service workers are actually more likely to be male, two of the largest frontline industry groups are overwhelmingly female. Frontline Health Care workers are 76 percent female and Child Care & Social Services workers are 85 percent female. Together, these two industry groups comprise two-thirds of the frontline workforce.

Now more than ever we need to support these workers who are staffing our hospitals, operating buses and trains, and stocking grocery store shelves. In normal times we often don’t notice just how important these workers are, but in times of crisis it becomes much clearer. As many of us stay home to stop the spread of the coronavirus, these workers put themselves at great risk, and often do so while earning modest wages. At a minimum our policy response needs to provide all frontline workers, regardless of immigration status, with full health coverage, access to protective equipment and testing, and necessary sick time. We should also consider expanding the provision of hazard pay to reflect the additional personal risks these workers are taking on right now. The state just struck a deal with the union representing nurses and caregivers at state hospitals in Massachusetts to increase their pay by up to $10 an hour for as long as the public health emergency continues. It’s also worth considering expanding this sort of hazard pay to other frontline workers. The city of Atlanta, for instance, just implemented hazard pay for public safety and sanitation workers, who will receive an additional $500 per month during the crisis.

Summary Table: A Demographic Profile of Massachusetts Workers in Frontline Industries



This research brief uses state-by-state estimates provided to local researchers by the Center for Economic Policy Research and uses a definition of “frontline” workers developed by the New York City Comptroller’s Office.

The data used throughout this brief come from the 2014-2018 American Community Survey, which are the most recent data available. The six frontline industry groups (in bold) are built using the Census Bureau Industry Codes (INDP #s) that follow. The data dictionary for the 2014-2018 ACS PUMS can be found here.

Grocery, Convenience, and Drug Stores

  • Grocery and related product merchant wholesalers (INDP=4470)
  • Supermarkets and other grocery stores (INDP=4971)
  • Convenience Stores (INDP=4972)
  • Pharmacies and drug stores (INDP=5070)
  • General merchandise stores, including warehouse clubs and supercenters (INDP=5391)

Public Transit

  • Rail transportation (INDP=6080)
  • Bus service and urban transit (INDP=6180)

Trucking, Warehouse, and Postal Service

  • Truck transportation (INDP=6170)
  • Warehousing and storage (INDP=6390)
  • Postal Service (INDP=6370)

Building Cleaning Services

  • Cleaning Services to Buildings and Dwellings (INDP=7690)

Select Health Care

  • Offices of physicians (INDP=7970)
  • Outpatient care centers (INDP=8090), Home health care services (INDP=8170)
  • Other health care services (INDP=8180)
  • General medical and surgical hospitals, and specialty hospitals (INDP=8191)
  • Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals (INDP=8192)
  • Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) (INDP=8270)
  • Residential care facilities, except skilled nursing facilities (INDP=8290)

Child Care and Social Services

  • Individual and family services (INDP=8370)
  • Community food and housing, and emergency services (INDP=8380)
  • Child day care services (INDP=8470)

Read more briefs from the COVID Community Data Lab