As they continued to do their jobs during the pandemic, essential workers — who were already managing multiple layers of social, economic, and professional precarity — faced new forms of surveillance around their health. While this health data collection was introduced at a time of increasing public visibility for essential workers, it wasn’t matched by meaningful increases in dignity, benefits, or information sharing. Instead, workers faced major regulation-induced gaps in critical information about who was sick in the workplace — information they needed to assess their risks and the risks to their families.
In Essentially Unprotected, Health & Data researchers Livia Garofalo, Amanda Lenhart, Ireti Akinrinade and Joan Mukogosi explore these workers’ experiences with health surveillance, and the complicated tensions between health data privacy and worker safety. Drawing on interviews with 50 workers in meat and food processing, grocery stores, warehouses and manufacturing, as well as experts from state and local and federal public health, occupational health and employment law and policy, and academic labor researchers, they consider how essential workers reacted to, and in some cases worked around, health surveillance in their workplaces. They delve into the haphazard nature of much workplace health data collection — both digital and analog — and look at how, faced with health information voids, some workers devised their own community-based measures to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
The authors also examine a major outlier in the study — Amazon — and the expansion of its already massive and comprehensive system for worker data collection, which exists to maximize productivity and profit and operates at the expense of workers’ mental and physical health. The report highlights the contrast between workplaces where data collection and COVID-related policy changes were executed to the employer’s advantage and those that benefited from unions, collective worker action, and a more equal balance in power. In those environments, workers were able to access the information they needed to understand their risk while preserving the privacy of coworkers’ health information.
With reflections from workers about the changes they’d like to see in their workplaces, and recommendations from researchers, worker advocates, and public health officials, Essentially Unprotected points to opportunities for broader structural and regulatory change.
Support for this research was provided by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.
Suggested citation: Garofalo, Livia, Amanda Lenhart, Ireti Akinrinade, and Joan Mukogosi. Essentially Unprotected: Health Data and Surveillance of Essential Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic. New York: Data & Society Research Institute, 2023.