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Study reveals high COVID-19 mortality rates among labor, retail and service workers

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Tampa, FL — COVID-19 mortality rates among adults with lower levels of education who worked in the labor, service and retail industries were nearly five times higher than other groups in 2020, results of a new study by the University of South Florida show.

Jason Salemi, an USF associate professor of epidemiology, and a group of epidemiologists from the COVKID Project looked at data for nearly 70,000 COVID deaths among adults ages 25 to 64 via the National Center for Health Statistics. One measure of socioeconomic status used by the center is education. Low socioeconomic position adults had no education beyond high school, while medium SEP was defined as at least one year of college and high SEP as a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.

Study results showed that that 68% of COVID deaths in the first year of the pandemic were among low SEP adults in labor, service and retail jobs that required onsite work and prolonged close contact with others. Low SEP adults had a mortality rate five times higher than high SEP adults.

When including gender, race and ethnicity groups, the biggest disparity was among low SEP white women, whose mortality rate was 4.95 times high than high SEP white women. Low SEP Hispanic women had a mortality rate 4.24 times higher than high SEP Hispanic women.

Low SEP Hispanic and Black men had the highest mortality rates, at 178 and 127.1 deaths per 100,000. In contrast, high SEP white men had a rate of 12.3.


Researchers said high SEP workers are more likely to have options to work remotely, paid sick leave and better access to health care. “The degree to which it takes a toll on communities is very unevenly distributed, and we wanted to call attention to that issue,” Salemi said.

Immediate actions needed to protect vulnerable workers, he added, include strengthening federal and state labor laws, empowering OSHA, adopting safety and health hazard policies and allowing unions to organize for greater worker safety protections.

The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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