A study from UC San Francisco shows increases in mortality for essential workers during pandemic

A recent study from University of California San Francisco found that during the pandemic working age adults experienced a 22% increase in mortality compared to historical periods.


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The study, titled “Excess mortality associated with the COVID-19 pandemic among Californians 18-65 years of age, by occupational sector and occupation: March through October 2020,” also found that mortality rates were highest amongst food and agricultural workers with a 39% increase. 

The authors of the study said that this factor must be addressed, due to work being a likely venue of transmission of the virus.

“Certain occupational sectors have been associated with high excess mortality during the pandemic, particularly among racial and ethnic groups also disproportionately affected by COVID-19. In-person essential work is a likely venue of transmission of coronavirus infection and must be addressed through strict enforcement of health orders in workplace settings and protection of in-person workers. Vaccine distribution prioritizing in-person essential workers will be important for reducing excess COVID mortality.”


Risk ratios for death, comparing pandemic time to non-pandemic time, among Californians 18–65 years of age, by occupational sector, March through October 2020.

Image courtesy of UC San Francisco



Transportation and logistics workers followed with a 28% increase. Facilities employees were next with a 27% increase in mortality, then manufacturing workers with a 23% increase.

The study also analyzed death rates based on race and ethnicity. Latino Californians experienced a 36% increase in mortality, with a 59% increase among Latino food and agricultural workers. 

In California, there are more than half a million farmworkers and nearly 75% of them are undocumented.

Although Latino Californians over the age of 18 represent 36.3% of the population, as of Wednesday, they represent 54% of the COVID-19 cases in California, and 46.3% of the deaths. 

Black Californians experienced a 28% increase in mortality, with a 36% increase for Black retail workers. Asian Californians experienced an 18% increase, with a 40% increase amongst Asian health care workers.

In comparison, mortality for white working-age Californians mortality only went up 6%, with an increase of 16% amongst white food and agricultural workers.

Essential workers experienced an increased risk of mortality of greater than 20% during the pandemic, with an increased risk of more than 40% during the first two months of the state’s reopening.

The authors of the study also said that eliminating COVID-19 will require addressing occupational risks.

“In-person essential workers are unique in that they are not protected by shelter-in-place policies. Indeed, our study shows that excess mortality rose sharply in the food/agriculture sector during the state’s first shelter-in-place period, from late March through May; these increases were not seen among those working in non-essential sectors.

Complementary policies are necessary to protect those who cannot work from home. These can and should include: free personal protective equipment, clearly defined and strongly enforced safety protocols, easily accessible testing, generous sick policies, and appropriate responses to workplace safety violations. As jurisdictions struggle with difficult decisions regarding vaccine distribution, our findings offer a clear point of clarity: vaccination programs prioritizing workers in sectors such as food/agriculture are likely to have disproportionately large benefits for reducing COVID-19 mortality.”