Supermarket workers are among the most vulnerable. Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg

Places like New York, Miami and Las Vegas have a higher share of the workforce in jobs with close proximity to others, putting them at greater Covid-19 risk.

The coronavirus is exposing a longstanding class divide in the way Americans work — between the low-paid front-line workers and the stay-at-home professionals with more job security and benefits. The first group — the grocery clerks, delivery workers, transit workers, food service workers, emergency responders, physicians’ assistants, and nurses’ aides — are exposed to Covid-19 in their day-to-day jobs and often on long public transit commutes. The second group is dependent on of the very services provided by these workers.

This divide also expresses itself in geography. Just as this virus hits harder in some places than others and hits hardest in clusters of the aged, the infirmed and the truly disadvantaged, the workforces of some cities and metro areas are more exposed and more vulnerable, too.

To get a handle on this, I worked with University of Maine economist Todd Gabe, an expert in America’s job structures and skills, to identify the cities and metro areas whose workforces are most exposed and at risk from Covid-19. Gabe used detailed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics O*NET survey to zero in on two key at-risk characteristics of jobs: the degree to which workers interact directly with the public and jobs that require high levels of very close physical proximity to others. We created index values for each metro, based on the share of workers in these occupations per metro divided by the percentage of workers who do these jobs nationally.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that roughly 50 million to 60 million Americans – potentially more than 40% of the U.S. workforce – perform “essential infrastructure” jobs. We found that between 35 million and 40 million U.S. workers, roughly 3 in 10, do high-risk jobs that involve high physical proximity to their co-workers and close interaction with the people they serve. Three-quarters of the jobs that involve working directly with the public are low-paying service jobs; 70% of the people who work in close physical proximity to one another are low-wage service workers or blue-collar workers. From there, our analysis zeroed in on metropolitan areas to determine which workforces have the highest percentages of these high-risk occupations.

Analysis by Todd Gabe based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET Survey.

The chart above shows the large metro areas (those with over 1 million people) whose workforces are most vulnerable. In the right-hand corner are metros whose workforces face a high degree of risk, with larger shares of workers doing jobs that require interaction with the public and physical proximity to one another.

Greater New York City, which is being hardest-hit area by the pandemic in the U.S., lands in this quadrant. It ranks fifth out of 53 large metros (more than 1 million people) for occupations that require high levels of physical proximity, and 17th in occupations that require direct interaction with the public. In addition, it has the largest percentage of workers, more than 30%, that use public transportation to get to work.

Many of the metros most at risk — like Las Vegas, Miami, Tampa and Orlando — rely on tourism and entertainment for revenue. They face a double whammy because they have a bigger percentage of their workforce potentially exposed to the virus and economies that may not be able to reopen for some time.

But they’re not the only vulnerable cities. Metros like Tucson, Providence, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Phoenix and hard-hit New Orleans are, too. And so are smaller metros like Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head in South Carolina; Asheville, North Carolina; and more remote places like Sioux Falls and Rapid City in South Dakota. These areas, where many urbanites are also fleeing, have even greater shares of workers whose jobs require a high degree of interaction with the public.

Large Metro

(More than 1 million people)

Share of Workers in Jobs with

High Levels of Public Interaction

Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL

28.0%

Tucson, AZ

27.4%

Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL

27.2%

Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV

27.1%

Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL

26.3%

Providence-Warwick, RI-MA

26.3%

Birmingham-Hoover, AL

26.0%

Jacksonville, FL

25.8%

Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ

25.8%

New Orleans-Metairie, LA

25.3%

Next, let’s look at metros where a larger share of people are working in close physical proximity to other workers. Some of the same cities appear on this list, but there are new additions, including Rust Belt metros with bigger blue-collar workforces like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Rochester, New York. Certain smaller metros shouldn’t be overlooked either. Among these are The Villages, Florida – a bustling center for senior living and already a hotspot for the virus, as well as resource-driven economies like McAllen and Brownsville, Texas.

Large Metro

(More than 1 million people)

Share of Workers in Jobs with

High Levels of Physical Proximity

Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV

32.2%

Tucson, AZ

32.1%

Providence-Warwick, RI-MA

30.3%

Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD

29.9%

New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA

29.5%

San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX

29.5%

Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL

29.4%

Pittsburgh, PA

29.4%

Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL

29.2%

Rochester, NY

29.2%

On the flip side, tech hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, Austin, and Washington, D.C., have much smaller shares of workers in occupations that are in close contact with the general public or require physical proximity. Note their clustering in the bottom left corner of the chart above. Despite what is often said about high-tech work requiring high degrees of face-to-face interaction, the San Jose metro — the veritable heart of Silicon Valley — has the lowest share of occupations that require direct physical proximity of workers (less than 20%) and the lowest share of occupations that require direct interaction with the public  (16%). Look at how far off it is to the left of the chart.

Others have sliced the data in different ways to come to similar conclusions. A New York Times analysis looked at occupations where people work in close proximity to others and how exposed they are to disease and infection in their jobs. Those at greatest risk are medical professionals like doctors, nurses, and paramedics and front-line service workers like personal care aides, home health care aides, and cashiers, the Times found.

Outside of medical professionals who are most vulnerable, many of the workers who face high risks toil in low-paying service jobs like food preparation, where the median wage is $11.41 per hour, or stock clerks, who make $12.36 an hour, according to a recent Brookings Institution analysis. Many don’t have health coverage.

But, however you look at the data, the bottom line is clear: Front-line workers bear disproportionate risk from this pandemic, and some metro areas have a disproportionately high share of these workers.

It is imperative that we protect them as they help us fight our way through this crisis. That means getting them the protective gear they need to do their jobs safely and securely. A study of the spread of the related SARs virus showed that the combination of masks, gloves, protective gear, and washing reduced the propagation of that deadly virus by as much as 90%. States and cities need to work alongside employers and the federal government to mobilize to provide the required personal protective equipment — or PPE.  This is imperative now, but will continue to be the case as our cities and businesses reopen in the next month or two, and perhaps for the next six to 12 or 18 months until testing is in place, better therapies are developed, a vaccine is discovered, or the virus becomes less virulent.

There is no reason why most front-line service workers need to be in DIY garb or the equivalent of hazmat suits forever. PPE can be designed in ways that are far less visually obtrusive and do not strike fear in customers and residents. Airlines and luxury hotels often work with fashion designers to create stylish uniforms. While large chains and employers can develop PPE themselves, states and localities can work with local designers to turn out masks, shields, gloves, and protective garments that look as much as possible like regular workwear and develop technical assistance programs for small businesses to learn how to deploy it and use it.

Like the industrial workers of a century ago, the harsh conditions confronted by front-line workers are causing them to begin to organize to demand better protection and better pay: Workers at a number of large delivery companies and grocery chains have threatened strikes and job actions to draw attention to their working conditions.

Failure to protect our front-line workers not only imperils them, it imperils all of us, by potentially accelerating the spread of the deadly virus. We should spare no cost protect the people who are the true heroes of our effort to staunch this pandemic.

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