Too Close for Comfort
The coronavirus pandemic has made “6 feet apart” a mantra for many, but what about workers whose livelihoods depend on contact with others? Economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis examined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Department of Labor to quantify how tough it is to keep a safe distance in various occupations. They assigned a proximity index based on their findings, where 0 means workers can do their job very far from others, while 100 means the opposite. Here are the highest-contact careers where “social distancing” is little more than wishful thinking.
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Hair Stylists and Cosmetologists
Proximity Index: 92.17
It goes without saying that it’s hard to do hair and makeup without touching clients. Adding insult to injury: These workers are the lowest-paid among the nation’s highest-contact workers, earning a yearly average of only $17,334, according to the Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey. Still, salons and barber shops in many states are reopening. Expect your next trip to look and feel a lot different, with fewer, more spaced-out clients, masks on clients and stylists, contactless payment, and closed waiting areas.
Related: How to Cut Your Long Hair When You Can’t Get to a Hair Stylist (VIDEO)
Occupational and Physical Therapists
Proximity Index: 90.50
While these workers make up a much smaller slice of the labor market than hair stylists — 0.08% versus 0.87% — they have a similarly touch-intensive job, helping patients gain mobility or overcome health challenges that can make daily life difficult. Going forward, patients can expect more virtual sessions where possible. For in-person appointments, therapists likely will wear protective gear, space appointments further apart, and screen patients for illness, among other safety measures.
Home Health and Personal Care Aides, Nursing Assistants, Orderlies
Proximity Index: 90.25
These jobs are some of the most touch-intensive in the medical profession, with workers assisting patients who may need help with daily tasks as mundane as making meals and as intimate as bathing. The nature of the work makes physical distancing impossible and, sadly, many workers are reporting that they don’t have enough personal protective equipment. Another factor making these jobs a tough sell during the pandemic: low pay, which averages $25,991 a year.
Nurses and Midwives
Proximity Index: 88.09
Perhaps no workers have been more visible during the pandemic than the nation’s nurses, and that has come at a steep price: Thousands of nurses and similar frontline workers have contracted COVID-19, and dozens have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For midwives, demand has surged as the pandemic has made expectant mothers nervous about hospital births, prompting many to choose birth centers or even at-home births instead.
Proximity Index: 88.09
Stress caused by the pandemic has meant no shortage of work for therapists, but many have opted to shift their appointments online to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Of course, that shift has been beset by its own challenges, including privacy concerns, internet limitations, and the fact that many insurers simply don’t cover telehealth, leaving patients on the hook for steep bills.
Related: Considering Online Therapy to Cope With the Pandemic? What You Need to Know
Proximity Index: 88.09
Caring for the furriest members of the family can often bring veterinarians and their assistants uncomfortably close to pet parents. Still, pets need care, pandemic or no pandemic, so vets have been adapting like other businesses. Many are now offering curbside drop-off and pickup for pets, eliminating the need for people to come inside offices at all. Payments and appointments are being made over the phone or online instead of in person, and some veterinarians are even opting to loop clients in on their pet’s care via phone or video.
Related: 47 Adorable Photos of Pets ‘Working From Home’
Proximity Index: 88
Restaurants have been one of the most visible pandemic battlegrounds, with states shutting down dining rooms across the country. In a typical restaurant, managers and other supervisors are in close contact not only with customers but with workers and vendors. As dining rooms reopen, social distancing measures will help curb some of that risk, but as many owners say, they could also make turning a profit nearly impossible by cutting way down on the number of customers.
Doctors and Other Diagnosing/Treating Practitioners
Proximity Index: 86.19
Doctors, dentists, and other medical professionals qualified to diagnose and treat medical problems are among the most essential of essential workers, and the busiest: They work the most hours, on average, of any of the workers on this high-contact list. Staying safe while treating COVID-19 remains a primary concern among this group, but primary-care doctors have also sounded the alarm about a precipitous drop in business stemming from patients putting off all but the most essential of medical appointments.
Personal Care/Service Supervisors
Proximity Index: 84.50
This broad category includes anyone directly supervising service workers, which could mean everyone from hair stylists to personal trainers to child-care providers. Like restaurant supervisors, these workers have to deal with a double dose of personal contact, working closely with both the public and the people they’re supervising.
Health Technologists and Technicians
Proximity Index: 82.73
Doctors and nurses may be among the most visible health-care workers, but there are plenty of supporting jobs where it’s hard to keep a safe distance. This category includes lab workers, sonographers, paramedics, EMTs, pharmacy techs, opticians, and hearing aid specialists. EMTs and paramedics are particularly vulnerable as first responders to many COVID-19 patients. While the right personal protective equipment is critical, workers also find themselves barring family members and friends from ambulance rides, plus isolating themselves from their own family members after their shifts.
Pilots and Flight Attendants
Proximity Index: 81.60
Those friendly skies may not feel so friendly anymore to pilots and flight attendants. Doing their job in a flying metal tube certainly doesn’t allow much room for spreading out, and travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic have ravaged their employers. While airlines have implemented social-distancing measures like blocking middle seats, analysts don’t expect the measures to last because they will be too costly for business.
Other Health Care Support Workers
Proximity Index: 80.20
In this category are the dental, medical, and veterinary assistants that many patients interact with long before they glimpse a dentist, doctor, or veterinarian. It also includes the phlebotomists who take blood all day, as well as massage therapists who help banish sore muscles and stress. Despite the full-contact nature of their job, massage therapists in many states are getting back to work, often with masks and other protective equipment, contact-free check-ins and checkouts, and more time for sanitizing between clients.
Preschool, Elementary, and Secondary Teachers
Proximity Index: 79.54
Kids are germ magnets, which puts the teachers who instruct them at particular risk. Schools were among the first institutions to shut down as the coronavirus pandemic ramped up, plunging teachers and students into the unfamiliar world of distance learning. It’s still unclear what schools may look like in the fall, but the CDC has issued guidelines recommending masks for students and teachers, social distancing in classrooms, staggered scheduling, and many more protective measures.
Other Teachers and Instructors
Proximity Index: 79
Schools aren’t the only place you find teachers. Workers in this category may teach adult literacy classes, English as a second language, Sunday school, or GED classes. They may also tutor kids who need extra help, or teach personal enrichment and self-improvement classes on a diverse array of topics. Whatever the subject, proximity to pupils makes these jobs particularly risky.
Motor Vehicle Operators
Proximity Index: 75.56
Truck drivers may be able to keep their distance while hauling goods along long ribbons of highway, but others who get behind the wheel — bus drivers, taxi drivers, your DoorDash driver — aren’t quite so lucky. And while those who use their cars to deliver food or goods are busier than ever, drivers who ferry people, particularly taxi and ride-share drivers, are fighting for a far smaller pool of customers at a far greater risk than usual.
Other Personal Care and Service Workers
Proximity Index: 75.50
This category includes two main occupations where social distancing is nearly impossible: child-care provider and personal trainer or fitness instructor. Day-care centers have seen enrollments dwindle to almost nothing, forcing some to close or at least lay off many workers. Those that have stayed open have often done so for children of essential workers, which could put them at even higher risk for contracting COVID-19. As for personal trainers and fitness instructors, many have had to take their sweat sessions online, motivating clients over Zoom and other digital platforms instead of in person.
Related: 18 Fitness Challenges to Keep Pace (and Your Distance) During the Pandemic
Food and Beverage Servers
Proximity Index: 75.17
While most restaurants have remained open during the pandemic for takeout and delivery, tip-dependent servers have been particularly hard hit by dining-room closures. Adding salt to the wound of weeks of lost wages: exhausting lists of new safety procedures that servers must implement as restaurants start welcoming diners once more.