Spotlight

Essential workers are bearing the brunt of COVID-19

For essential workers, the stress of working through COVID-19 has taken a toll on both physical and mental health.

Posted Updated
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By
Abbey Slattery
, WRAL Digital Solutions
This article was written for our sponsor, N.C. Justice Health Advocacy Project.

During the past year, millions of Americans pivoted to working remotely due to the pandemic. For those deemed essential workers, however, in-person work continued.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, essential workers are those who are either in healthcare or deemed necessary for maintaining critical infrastructure, services, and functions.

Among those that fall under the essential workers umbrella are employees in the service industry, including restaurant workers, warehouse workers, grocery store workers, and public transit workers. With most of these jobs requiring frequent exposure to other people, essential workers have taken on additional stress and risk during COVID-19 without the security of health insurance.

"I've never stopped working, so I've been out there on the front lines since the beginning. Every week, I'm working anywhere from 70 to 85 hours," said Eric Winston, who has been working at two different restaurants throughout COVID-19. "My two full-time jobs have me just barely scraping by as far as necessities like clothes, food, child support, and a caregiver for my mother."

While Winston's company does offer insurance, the high cost to buy into marketplace health insurance coverage prevents him from affording it. Under the Affordable Care Act, the average monthly premium across 39 states was $612. Monthly premiums differ based on state, and in North Carolina, the average premium is $729.

For Winston, the risks of working in the restaurant industry make a lack of insurance access all the more dire.

According to a new report from the Georgetown Center for Children and Families, the construction, retail and restaurant industries make up 42% of low-wage workers who are uninsured.

"The very workers who have been deemed essential are on the frontlines without health insurance," said Hyun Namkoong, policy advocate with the N.C. Justice Center. "By allowing these workers to access affordable care through Medicaid expansion, we could make being 'in this together' a reality for workers across the state."

Winston is like many North Carolinians who are in the state's coverage gap. They earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to receive subsidies on the Marketplace.

At Winston's company, employees have banded together to support each other during this stressful period.

"We're all really close, and we care for each other enough to pass things along through word of mouth. If someone does contract COVID or was close to someone who did, they'll pass it along and tell people that they might want to get tested. We have the due diligence to take care of each other, but a lot of these companies are dropping the ball," said Winston. "A lot of my coworkers have children, and they have elderly parents that they're taking care of as well. They have underlying health conditions, as well. It's a terrifying experience for anybody to have to go through, especially when they have to worry about how they're gonna pay the bills or get medicine or food."

This article was written for our sponsor, N.C. Justice Health Advocacy Project.