Keeping workers safe: What do the numbers say?

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold, millions of nonessential workers had the benefit of shifting from the office to the safety and convenience of home. But that wasn’t a practical option for essential workers employed in jobs requiring a high degree of interaction with the public or with each other. Doctors warned that the risk for disease transmission would be greater for these vulnerable workers, and they were right.

Masked person puts a sign on door that says "OPEN BUSINESS AS NEW NORMAL"

A new study has measures that risk, revealing the real threat for essential workers and the potential benefits from business closure policies. Scientists from Penn collaborated with researchers from Independence Blue Cross on the study, “The Impact of the Non-Essential Business Closure Policy on COVID-19 Infection Rates,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Hummy Song, a Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, and Aaron Smith-McLallen, director of data science and health care analytics for Independence Blue Cross, are two of the co-authors.

“Our goal in this work was to examine the extent to which being designated as an essential worker versus as a nonessential worker by this policy impacts your risk of being positive for COVID-19. We took this one step further and also looked into how it impacts the risk of those who are living with essential versus nonessential workers,” says Song.

“Our main finding is that workers who were deemed essential have a 55% higher likelihood of being positive for COVID-19, compared to those who are classified as nonessential. In other words, nonessential workers absolutely seem to experience a protective effect from this policy,” Song says.

“The other finding I wanted to highlight is that it’s not only the essential or nonessential workers who are experiencing this difference in infection risk, but also the other members in their household. Specifically, we’re finding that, compared to those who are living with a nonessential worker, dependents living with an essential worker have a 17% higher likelihood of being COVID positive, and roommates living with an essential worker experience a 38% higher likelihood of being COVID positive.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.