If you drive west of Salem for a little more than 100 miles, you will arrive at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. A few days ago, a pair of researchers at the school’s Labor Center released a study showing that many essential workers in the state – especially those in low-wage jobs – feel unsafe and unprotected at their jobs.

By the numbers

The researchers surveyed 1,600 essential workers In western Massachusetts, finding that 51 percent say they feel unsafe at work. Many reported that they lack basic safety measures and gear at their jobs, including the following:

  • 65 percent: unable to practice on-the-job social distancing
  • 21 percent: lack masks to wear in the workplace
  • 17 percent: do not have hand sanitizer
  • 16 percent: asked by employers not to share health information with co-workers
  • 8 percent: unable to regularly wash their hands at work

The UMass researchers also reported that two-thirds of grocery and other retail workers feel unsafe when they’re at their jobs.

Low-wage safety

The survey also found that low-wage workers are two to three times more likely than high-wage earners to lack workplace access to safety measures. Thirty-six percent of those low-wage earners also told researchers that in the previous week, they were unable to meet family food needs. The study noted that food insecurity is highest among Latino workers.

The researchers define low-wage workers as those who earn less than $20 per hour. High-wage workers are those who earn $40 per hour and above.

“There are many who are claiming that the coronavirus is the great equalizer,” researcher Jasmine Kerrissey said. “Really, what this points out is that the impacts of COVID-19 are felt much more strongly by the working class and low-wage workers.”

It should be noted that some western Massachusetts communities have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus. According to the New York Times, the Springfield metro area is eighth in the nation in confirmed COVID-19 deaths per 1,000 residents, while the Greenfield metro is 12th.

Hit hard

One unnamed worker cited in the UMass study dismissed the notion that low-wage workers are heroes for showing up at work, pointing out those at the lower end of the economic scale often cannot afford to quit a job just because they feel unsafe. “We are not heroes because it is not a choice.”

Researcher Clare Hammonds said, “the workers asked to take the greatest risks with their own health and safety are the workers who are often experiencing the least compensation for that.”

We urge everyone to take the health and safety precautions they can to stay safe, and remember that injury or illness that arises out of and in the course of your job is generally covered by Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation.