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Beyond Government Data: Surveys of Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In the current period of widespread uncertainty and disruption, data on the realities facing workers is critical for developing and implementing responsive support systems. Recently, policymakers, researchers, and the public have looked to the Department of Labor for data on Unemployment Insurance claims in the states. With nearly 17 million workers filing unemployment claims in the past three weeks, these figures show unprecedented levels of job loss.

While these traditional labor market figures shed light on the challenges many currently face, even the most rigorous data tends to underrepresent specific populations of workers, such as undocumented workers and those in the informal economy. To fill this information gap, a variety of organizations have surveyed specific worker populations and shared key findings. The surveys on the groups highlighted below provide a deeper understanding of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted workers in the U.S.

  • Care workers: PHI, a nonprofit that promotes quality direct care jobs, shared key findings from a national online survey of care workers, employers, and consumers, conducted in March, about the ways in which long-term care providers and direct care workers are managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Over two-thirds of respondents fear that workers will need to leave their jobs to care for their relatives, and a similar number worry there will not be enough workers to replace those who take time off or leave their jobs.

  • Domestic workers: NDWA Labs, the innovation arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, shared key results from an online survey conducted with subscribers of La Alianza, a news service for domestic workers. The report includes results from more than 28,000 respondents in late March and early April. In this survey, respondents reported on the impact of the pandemic on their jobs and hours; their ability to pay for necessities such as food and rent; and their access to medical care. When asked about impacts on their work, 72 percent of respondents reported that they had no jobs beginning on April 6, and 94 percent of coronavirus-related cancellations were by their client, rather than by them.
  • Fast food workers: The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) shared key survey findings from a nationwide online survey of 843 McDonald’s workers. The survey, conducted online between March 31 and April 6. asked about workers’ access to protective equipment at work, their ability to follow safety precautions, changes in customer traffic, and impact on their hours. Of the surveyed workers, 16 percent reported that their store was closed or they were not offered any hours in the previous week, while 68 percent reported that they had been offered fewer hours than they had before the outbreak.
  • Freelancers: Freelancers Union, an advocacy organization for independent workers, released results from an online survey, which captured responses from 5,257 freelancers. The survey asked about the ways in which COVID-19 was impacting their contracts and projects and affecting their income, and about the assistance programs that are critical during this time. Seventy-six percent of respondents reported that they have had contracts cancelled, while 91 percent anticipated a loss of income in the coming weeks.

  • Hourly service workers: Researchers from Columbia University and Duke University shared results from an ongoing survey of hourly service workers in a U.S. city impacted by coronavirus. In addition to the daily survey data gathered from a sample of 690 workers between February 20 and March 24, a subsample of 405 workers was contacted for a one-time survey about the effects of the COVID-19 crisis between March 23 and 25. The workers included in this sample hold jobs across the service sector, including retail, food service, hospitality, house cleaning, delivery, and home health care. The survey covered the ways in which the outbreak has impacted jobs and work hours, household income, and mental health. Additionally, the survey asked about workers’ ability to access relief resources and employer-provided benefits. As of March 25, 41 percent of respondents reported that they had been permanently or temporarily laid off, while two-thirds reported income declines since the start of the crisis.
  • Rideshare drivers: The Rideshare Guy, a blog and resource for rideshare drivers, shared results from an online survey about the effects of COVID-19, which was conducted between March 13 and 16 and had nearly 200 respondents. The survey asked rideshare drivers about the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic has impacted their work hours and income. Roughly 81 percent of respondents indicated that they have experienced a decline in demand, and 24 percent of drivers said they have stopped driving entirely, due to concerns about the virus.

As the health and economic situation in the U.S. evolves, continued efforts to gather and share insights into impacts on workers—particularly those who may be underrepresented in traditional labor market figures—is more important than ever. Information gathered through surveys fits into a broader landscape of workforce knowledge, which include public data from the U.S. Department of Labor, state workforce agencies, and private administrative data. As policymakers and researchers gain a better understanding of the challenges that workers face in this unprecedented moment, they will be able to more effectively develop policies that are responsive to the needs of the workforce.

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