New: COVID-19 Exposes Structural Inequities in Illinois’ Economy and Impacts on People of Color

On everything from infection risk and job volatility to average wages– essential, face-to-face, and remote workers face very different health and economic hazards

La Grange and Champaign: The “essential” and “face-to-face” Illinois workers who were most affected by the state’s efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic also earn lower wages, face more job volatility, and are more likely to be people of color, according to a new analysis by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The report was covered in the Chicago Tribune.

Click here to read the report, “The Effects of the Global Pandemic on Illinois Workers: An Analysis of Essential, Face-to-Face, and Remote Workers During COVID-19.”

The report relies on both prior economic research and the state’s March “Stay at Home Order” to analyze Illinois’ labor force across three broad categories: “essential” workers, “face-to-face” workers, and “remote” workers. All told, 3.1 million workers, or 51% of the pre-pandemic workforce, performed essential job functions ranging from public safety, health care services, and public sector operations to food production, delivery services, construction, utilities, and certain types of manufacturing.  Another 1.7 million workers, or 27%, were found in “face-to-face” businesses such as restaurants, bars, nail salons, and arts and entertainment businesses. Remote industries employed about 1.4 million workers, or 22%, in professions such as IT, management, finance, insurance, and the legal sector.

“Considered through the lens of these broad workforce categories, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a range of structural economic and public health inequities,” said study co-author and ILEPI Policy Director Frank Manzo IV. “The lowest-paid workers– including both face-to-face and essential workers who have kept our state running– are those suffering from the highest risk of infection, job loss, and loss of health insurance.”


The report notes that, on average, remote workers earn about $35 per hour compared with $27 per hour for essential workers and just $20 per hour for face-to-face workers. Notably, 44% of face-to-face workers earn less than $15 per hour– nearly double the rate for essential workers (25%) and three times the rate for remote workers (15%). After accounting for other important factors, essential workers earn 7 percent less than remote workers and face-to-face workers earn 14 percent less than remote workers– even with the same level of education.

COVID19 Risk

As the economic consequences of the pandemic have intensified, the research highlights that face-to-face workers have been hit hardest. By April 2020, the unemployment rate in the state’s face-to-face sectors had surged to 35%, compared to 12% for essential workers and just 6% for remote workers. While all demographic groups have experienced COVID-19-related job losses and furloughs, the study notes that women and Latinx workers have faced the biggest spikes in unemployment.

“Due to the surge of unemployment claims during this pandemic, upwards of 545,000 Illinois workers likely lost their employer-sponsored health insurance,” added study co-author and PMCR Director Dr. Robert Bruno.  “And our report estimates that nine out of every ten of these newly uninsured Illinois residents were face-to-face and essential workers who have been most at risk of being exposed to COVID-19 on the job in the first place.”

Beneath the broad economic indicators, the report reveals that while face-to-face workers are more likely to be women and people of color living in the Chicago suburbs, “remote” workers are more likely to be white and living in the City of Chicago. Essential workers are more likely to be men, living downstate, and more likely to be union members.

Finally, researchers outlined a series of policy considerations that could address the economic disparities exposed by the pandemic– including hazard pay for face-to-face workers, paid sick and parental leave laws, an expansion of collective bargaining rights to include independent contractors and gig economy workers, and a public health care option to ensure access to coverage for newly unemployed and economically vulnerable workers.

“Ultimately, COVID-19 has brought new recognition to the value of and challenges faced by both essential and face-to-face workers, who have been disproportionately impacted by the economic and public health fallout of the pandemic,” concluded Professor Bruno. “By considering measures that better protect workers’ rights, promote labor standards, and rebuild the middle class, Illinois can turn this recognition into a rising tide that lifts all boats.”


The Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) is a nonprofit organization which uses advanced statistics and the latest forecasting models to promote thoughtful economic growth for businesses and working families.

The Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois investigates the working conditions of workers in today’s economy to elevate public discourse aimed at reducing poverty, create more stable forms of employment, and promote middle-class jobs.