New Research on the Effects of COVID-19 on Low-Wage Workers

April 17, 2020

At the June 2019 meeting of its board of trustees, the Russell Sage Foundation made a grant through its Future of Work program to support a research project led by psychologist Anna Gassman-Pines (Duke University) and economist Elizabeth Ananat (Barnard College). The project was originally designed to evaluate the effects of a new labor law, Philadelphia’s Fair Workweek Standard, on employers, workers with young children, and their families. The study focuses on the experiences of low-wage workers in the service industries, including retail, food service, hospitality, house cleaning, delivery, and home health care. Gassman-Pines and Ananat hypothesized that the new law would reduce schedule unpredictability, thereby, reducing uncertainty and stress in the lives of low-wage workers.

A key, innovative element of this research project is daily data collection from low-wage workers on their lives and their children. The project’s first wave of data collection last fall focused on worker demographics, health and wellbeing, work history, and their wages, as well as reports on children. The second wave, from February to April 2020, is gathering updates on income changes, new jobs, and job losses. 

EconoFact recently published findings from Gassman-Pines and Ananat’s research. Alix Gould-Werth, Director of Family Economic Security Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth (one of the study’s funders), created an informative Twitter thread that outlines data from the scholars’ research in an accessible way. Their project was also featured in an article on FiveThirtyEight.com about how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting low-wage families.

Since the study’s second wave of data collection began in late February, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 20,000 lives in the United States, prompted widespread closures of non-essential businesses, and led to drastic spikes in unemployment claims by newly jobless Americans. Gassman-Pines and Ananat’s data and analysis offers invaluable information about how low-wage workers are being impacted by the pandemic. In March, more than 70% of survey respondents reported working fewer hours; more than 40% were laid off from their jobs. Workers reported significant psychological distress for both themselves and their children as the crisis began to unfold. The surveys reveal a disturbing lack of access to the social safety net, with incredibly few respondents’ receiving unemployment insurance, emergency childcare, free school meals, and distance learning for children whose schools were closed. The survey reflects dire predictions about low-wage American families’ lack of financial preparedness for crises.  More than half of the families who were able to provide an estimate indicated that they would be unable to pay for groceries or housing by the end of May 2020.

As the country braces for the continued impact of COVID-19, RSF will look to scholars like Gassman-Pines and Ananat for data, analysis, and policy recommendations that help us understand and address this unprecedented public health and financial crisis while prioritizing the experiences and concerns of the most marginalized families and communities.

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