A new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) finds that nearly one-quarter of the U.S. workforce—about 37.7 million workers—are at high risk of severe illness if they contract the Covid-19 virus.
That number includes 10 million workers who are 65 or older and 27.7 million deemed to be at higher risk for severe illness from the virus because of pre-existing medical conditions including diabetes, asthma, heart or or chronic pulmonary disease, obesity, and cancer-related conditions.
The report, published June 15, comes as states lift restrictions and businesses, beaches, and public spaces slowly reopen—some cautiously, others eager pushing to get back to their old “normal” as quickly as possible.
According to KFF president and CEO Drew Altman, many employers “are largely on their own to develop policies to reopen safely.
“These data suggest employers should take into account the higher risk some workers will face, allowing them to work at home where possible, to be tested, and to minimize their risks if they return to work,” Altman says in a statement announcing the findings.
The report, based on data from the 2018 National Health Interview Survey, estimates that another 12 million adults at high risk of a severe case of Covid-19 are not employed but share households with workers. “For this group, indirect exposure could be just as serious of a risk as going to work themselves,” the report says.
The majority of at-risk workers have full-time jobs: Eighty-six percent of non-elderly employees who are at high risk work at least 35 hours a week, as do 61 percent of those 65 and older (all of whom are considered high-risk). These workers “have substantial connection to work and may face economic difficulties remaining absent from their jobs even if safety is a question,” the report says.
The average non-elderly adult at-risk worker earned $48,400 in 2018, while those not at risk earned $51,900, the report says. Among workers 65 and older, average earnings were $49,100 in 2018, although a quarter of those workers earned less than $17,300 that year.
“As more workplaces reopen, there will be increasing pressures for all workers, including those at higher risk, to return to jobs or seek new jobs outside of their homes,” the report says.
The KFF report encourages employers to make the return to work as safe as possible for employees. It concludes: “Employers, workers, and governments may need to consider flexible and creative approaches to balance safety and business needs, but with such [a] large number of workers meeting vulnerability criteria, there will be a continuing tension between the economic pressures facing families and businesses, and the health and safety of millions of people.”