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Low-Wage Earners Have Lacked the Luxury of Working From Home During COVID-19

Food is distributed to BIPOC residents at a church in New York City during the pandemic.

Key Takeaways

  • Cell phone data demonstrate that residents of poorer areas of the U.S. spent less time at home during the pandemic.
  • Findings suggest low-wage workers could not afford to follow stay-at-home orders or were unable to work remotely.
  • Residents of the U.S. cities with higher levels of college degrees demonstrated more time spent at home.

Wealth has never been equitably distributed across the U.S., and the pandemic has only highlighted this reality. A recently published study in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers found that this was evident from the time that various groups spent at home.

Several studies have demonstrated how the thick skin bias influences how low-income individuals are viewed as being less harmed by negative experiences than their more wealthy counterparts would be.

Especially given how the pandemic has impacted the economy, social inequity in this country needs to be taken seriously, as there is no shortage of research that demonstrates the impact on mental health.

Understanding the Research

This study used data from 45 million mobile phone users in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Washington, Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Phoenix, Boston, and San Francisco from January to August 2020.

Across all these cities, researchers found that residents of neighborhoods with a higher percentage of wealth and higher average household income level were able to spend more time at home than those living in poor areas.

Although data from 45 million anonymous mobile devices covering 10% of the US population was used, this sample can never be a perfect representative subset of the population, which is a weakness of this study.

Addressing Existing Inequities

Coresearcher for this study, assistant professor at the School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University, Junyu Lu, PhD, says, “One expedient way to address the existing inequity in terms of the impact of COVID-19 in the U.S. is that the public should get vaccinated as soon as possible, especially for those lower-income communities who cannot afford to stay at home or cannot work remotely.”

To address these longstanding issues, Lu recommends that the government should propose strategies, make efforts, and provide incentives to encourage those socioeconomically disadvantaged groups to get vaccinated.

Lu says, "We believe that big data, for example, geospatial data and mobile phone data can be instrumental to prepare us to respond to a future pandemic. This can significantly reduce the infection rate."

Desperate Measures Taken to Survive

A psychiatrist at Community Health of South Florida, Inc. (CHI), Howard Pratt, DO, says, "This is a brilliant study that illustrates what people who work with me at our facility already know, that we have a financially vulnerable population, but during situations like this pandemic, this group is even more vulnerable. Low-wage earners are being hit the hardest in terms of financial impacts, mental health impacts, and disparity."

In desperate situations, Pratt outlines how low-wage earners may continue to work in an environment that is potentially life-threatening, because they may be unable to work from home, but still need to feed their families.

Howard Pratt, DO

It’s extremely hard to explain to a child that you know it’s dangerous out there and that people are dying, but that you’ve got to go out there in order to take care of them.

— Howard Pratt, DO

Pratt says, "From a mental health perspective, this can lead to feeling unimportant, depressed, and anxious. And this doesn’t just affect the low-wage earner, but also whoever is in their home, which is quite often children. It’s extremely hard to explain to a child that you know it’s dangerous out there and that people are dying, but that you’ve got to go out there in order to take care of them."

Pratt continues, "This is disruptive to the home environment and teaches the children that this is what to do in these situations, so the behavior becomes generational.”

A Vicious Cycle for Minorities

Hopkins-trained psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry, Leela R. Magavi, MD, says, "Minority individuals who have faced perpetuated health disparities may understandably distrust the system. Due to enduring uncertainties and losses, many are hypervigilant and are experiencing anticipatory anxiety about the safety of the vaccine."

In terms of how mental health concerns present, Magavi explains that severe anxiety can even lead to paranoia and resulting misperceptions that everything has been fabricated by certain agencies to profit or harm others.

Leela R. Magavi, M.D.

This also affected many individuals’ self-esteem as it made them feel like subservient beings as they were not granted the same opportunities as more affluent individuals.

— Leela R. Magavi, M.D.

Magavi says, "I have evaluated many minority individuals who experienced new-onset panic attacks and depressive symptoms as they did not have the opportunity to work remotely and were constantly in fear that they were placing themselves and their families in danger. This also affected many individuals’ self-esteem as it made them feel like subservient beings as they were not granted the same opportunities as more affluent individuals."

A Final Note From History

As this research study has demonstrated, wealth and education were associated with the ability to spend more time at home during the pandemic. It is why Pratt makes reference to the Spanish flu of 1918, and says, “That crisis hit low-wage earners from low-income communities significantly harder than other groups. Over a hundred years have passed and I like to think that we have advanced as a society in almost every endeavor except for how we address socioeconomic disparities."

"If we can’t improve on this, we will be in this situation in the future, yet again, and we have to do better," says Pratt.

What This Means For You

The COVID-19 pandemic was incredibly difficult for everyone who experienced it, but low-wage earners were more likely to lose their jobs or be forced to work in unsafe environments in order to continue paying the bills. This is important to realize as we reflect on those most affected during the past year. If you or someone you love was an essential worker during the pandemic, we're grateful to you.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Huang X, Lu J, Gao S, Wang S, Liu Z, Wei H. Staying at home is a privilege: evidence from fine-grained mobile phone location data in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemicAnn Am Assoc Geogr. Published online May 27, 2021. doi:10.1080/24694452.2021.1904819