The Dignity of Fragile Essential Work in a Pandemic: Perspectives of African American Employees on Race, Respect, and Relations at Work

Awarded Scholars:
Alford Young, Jr., University of Michigan
Arthur Thurnau, University of Michigan
Earl Lewis, University of Michigan
Project Date:
Mar 2021
Award Amount:
$121,402

Co-funded by JPB Foundation

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, African Americans in Michigan were contracting coronavirus and dying from it at far higher rates than any other group in the state. In Detroit, a majority black city, most cases were in black, especially poor black, communities. At the same time, the Michigan governor designated workers in many occupations as “essential workers,” including transportation, delivery, food, health care and public health. However, many essential workers lacked protective equipment, could not refuse assignments, did not receive hazard pay and often lacked health insurance. There was, however, an outpouring of public appreciation for essential workers, especially, nurses, doctors, and emergency medical technicians. But we do not know how this general recognition was perceived by essential workers in lower-status jobs. To better understand whether and how black essential workers in low-skilled, low-wage jobs changed their valuation of their work and their feelings about it because of the pandemic, sociologist Alford Young Jr. and his research team will conduct an in-depth qualitative interview study. They will seek to ascertain whether there are substantive changes in these workers’ perceptions of their work and their workplaces, as well as the expectations they may have about their employers, the government, and the public. Did their working conditions or treatment by employers, supervisors, and customers change due to the pandemic? Has the meaning and the value they attach to their jobs, their social identity, and their sense of self-worth changed?

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