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Essential workers and care penalties in the United States

The new category of workers officially labeled “essential” in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States includes a large percentage of women working in care services. In many of these services, health risks are often considered part of the job and are uncompensated by hazard pay. Building on previous feminist research explaining the devaluation of care work, this paper uses the most recent available data from the US Current Population Survey to show that workers in essential care service jobs – especially women – earn less than other essential workers. This pattern cannot be explained by differences in unionization rates and points to other differences in bargaining power, including institutional factors influencing the earnings of doctors and nurses. Care penalties have significant implications for the future supply of care services as the pandemic persists, highlighting the need to develop broad coalitions to challenge the undervaluation of care work.


  • Care workers are half of all essential workers in the US and mostly women.

  • Essential care workers pay a wage penalty.

  • Features of care work contribute to disempowerment by encouraging commitment over bargaining.

  • Pay penalties contribute to burnout, high turnover, and reduced entry into essential care jobs.

  • Industry-level unionization coalitions should form to contest devaluation of care provision.

Folbre, N., Gautham, L., & Smith, K. (2020). Essential Workers and Care Penalties in the United States. Feminist Economics, 1-15.

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