A full accounting of death demographics in the coronavirus pandemic won't likely be done for years. But we already know that a significant number of essential workers have been among the dead, and in California that is likely contributing to the much-discussed labor shortage.
The popular narrative with the labor shortage has been that everyone is sitting at home collecting unemployment — and who would want to rush back to their dishwashing or cooking or bartending gig if the money wasn't going to be better than what the government is giving them? No doubt the pandemic has given a lot of service-industry workers nationwide the time and financial breathing room to reconsider what they're doing with their lives and careers, and some may have already chosen to simply do something else.
But two important facts that have not entered into the popular narrative — which has largely been pushed by Republicans and Fox News — are 1) a lot of these essential workers are likely scared to go back to being in constant contact with the public, especially with the Delta variant now making many people sick; and 2) some of them simply aren't with us anymore.
Getting to a true number of restaurant, retail, and farm workers who lost their lives to COVID-19 may be difficult. But there are some estimates already being made.
The UC Merced Community and Labor Center published an analysis of public health data in April, looking at excess deaths in California between March 2020 and December 2020, and they estimate that 87% of these deaths were among front-line workers.
There were 14,370 deaths in the state last year that are considered "excess" and likely attributable to the pandemic. Of those, the Merced researchers say that 12,500 were essential workers. (A previous study out of UCSF ranked the occupations that were the most risky in the pandemic, the riskiest of which were in food and transportation.)
The researchers further estimate that the largest share of those were restaurant and bar workers, a category which saw 1,100 excess deaths in 2020 compared to the previous year. The group that saw the steepest increase in excess deaths was warehouse workers, followed by agriculture workers, but restaurant and bar workers saw a 42% jump in excess deaths — with a total of around 3,700 deaths overall, statewide.
While the number may not be anywhere near the number of service jobs that remain unfilled in the state, it's still a tragic fact and one that hasn't been much discussed in the context of the labor shortage.
As one former restaurant worker who took a job as a mail carrier during the pandemic tells the New York Times' Daily podcast, he's infuriated when he sees this trope on social media about lazy workers sitting at home collecting unemployment.
"I find that so offensive," he says. "What's really not being said here is: a bunch of us died. Going to work, a bunch of us died. So-called essential workers, right? They paid the highest price. I feel like that's not said enough."
A total of 63,712 Californians have died from COVID-19 to date in the pandemic, and the number continues to rise — though not as quickly as it had been months ago, thanks to the vaccines. It's not known what percentage of those deaths were essential workers who died after contracting COVID on the job, but at some point we may have an idea.
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