The Elderly vs. Essential Workers: Who Should Get the Coronavirus Vaccine First?


In September, academic researchers analyzed the Department of Homeland Security’s list of essential workers and found that it broadly mirrored the demographics of the American labor force. The researchers proposed a narrower, more vulnerable category — “frontline workers,” such as food deliverers, cashiers and emergency medical technicians, who must work face to face with others and are thus at greater risk of contracting the virus.

By this definition, said Francine D. Blau, a labor economist at Cornell University and an author of the study, teachers belong in the larger category of essential workers. However, when they work in classrooms rather than remotely, she said, would they fit into the “frontline” group. Individual states categorize teachers differently.

Dr. Blau said that if supplies are short, frontline workers should be emphasized. “These are a subset of essential workers who, given the nature of their jobs, must provide their labor in person. Prioritizing them makes sense given the heightened risk that they face.”

The analysis, a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, is in line with other critics, who say that the list of essential workers is too wide-ranging.

“If groups are too large, then you’re not really focusing on priorities,” said Saad B. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, who worked on the vaccination frameworks for the W.H.O. and the National Academies.

The essential workers on the federal list make up nearly 70 percent of the American labor force, the researchers said, compared with 42 percent for the frontline workers. Women made up 39 percent of frontline workers and, in certain occupations, far more. Frontline workers’ education levels are lower, as are their wages — on average, just under $22 an hour. The proportion of Black and Hispanic workers is higher than in the broader category of essential workers.



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