1 in 4 workers at risk for serious COVID-19 illness as employers open up workplaces

Kaiser Family Foundation research points to challenges for employers.
By: | June 26, 2020 • 3 min read
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Nearly one in four workers is at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19 if infected, according to new analysis from Kaiser Family Foundation, signaling that employers may want to embrace remote work options longer than expected and better prepare for bringing workers back to the workplace.

The analysis estimates that 37.7 million workers, or 24% of employed U.S. adults in 2018, are at high risk, including 10 million who are 65 years or older and an additional 27.7 million with pre-existing medical conditions. The analysis also estimates that 12 million more at-risk adults who do not work themselves live in households with workers. For this group, indirect exposure could be just as serious of a risk as going to work themselves, Kaiser says.

“These data suggest employers should take into account the higher risk some workers will face, allowing them to work at home where possible, to be tested and to minimize their risks if they return to work,” says KFF President and CEO Drew Altman.

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The Kaiser Family Foundation analysis follows data from Gallup showing that nearly half of employees are concerned about being exposed to COVID-19 at work—both findings that point to significant challenges for employers looking to bring workers back to the workplace.

Major employers are looking for ways to cut down on risks—including further embracing remote work. A significant number of companies—from Twitter and Facebook to financial services firm Edward Jones—say they will continue to embrace remote work to help employees during the pandemic. And data from research firm the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found that more than half of 27 employers surveyed plan to expand or increase flexible work arrangements on a more permanent basis, even after the coronavirus outbreak is contained.

Other employers, especially ones who depend more on onsite employees, are looking at ways to avoid spreading the virus as they bring more workers to the office. Temperature checks, social distancing, more vigorous cleaning and requiring employees to wear masks are among the precautions employers are taking. Still, not all employers are embracing such safeguards, meaning there’s room for growth.

For instance, the majority of workers (69%) surveyed by Gallup say there are new or more frequent cleaning procedures at work, while 58% say their employer is always providing personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves or face shields. Just over half of employees say employers are enforcing a six-foot distance between employees and customers or other employees, and 41% say their employers are screening employees for cough or fever.

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Meanwhile, providers are releasing technology that helps identify sick workers.

Alight Solutions, for instance, released an app that provides configurable screening and access to healthcare concierge services for all employees returning to their physical workspaces. Alight’s app provides quick health assessments and care options for employees affected by a positive COVID-19 diagnosis or those who could potentially be infected. Each day, employees complete a short, symptom-focused questionnaire—based on Centers for Disease Control and employer guidelines—and are given an immediate pass/fail notification via the app.

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.