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As 25-year-old Torian Jones sorted out the fresh produce section at Cleo’s Bodega grocery store, he put the bad tomatoes in a small box. Part of his work as manager of inventory is to gather them and take them for composting at a nearby farm.

Working at the grocery store makes Jones feel good because, “the store is part of the community, it’s a non-profit and we are offering an important service.”

But it doesn’t pay enough. Besides his job at the store, Jones has at least four other side hustles—DJ, jewelry designer, freelance contractor among others.

“I have to do that to keep a roof above my head,” he said. As a grocery store worker, Jones is considered part of the essential workforce. He worked at the grocery store since the beginning of the pandemic. And even though Jones has severe asthma, he couldn’t stay home.

After all, his grocery store job is the only one that provides a steady paycheck. Still, he can’t afford to sign up for any benefits like health insurance. “It will take about $140 dollars out of my paycheck,” he said. “I can’t afford that. It will come out of the budget I use to get food or pay rent.”

With all the jobs Jones takes on, he is still struggling to afford his asthma medical supplies like inhalers—leaving him scrambling to borrow from other people.

Now with the pandemic taking a turn and mask mandates being lifted for vaccinated Hoosiers, Jones feels vulnerable and anxious. He is not confident people will keep their masks on if they are not vaccinated.

“And with everything I hear about mutations and variants, it’s scary,” he said. He is not vaccinated yet. He said he’s been dealing with three deaths in the family including his grandmother who’s been struggling for a long time and couldn’t find the time to get his vaccine.

The pandemic has had a compounded impact on people like Jones.

“When our systems are shaken and disrupted as they have been by the pandemic, those people whose employment was most precarious to begin with are the first ones to suffer,” said Emily Ahonen, associate professor at the Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Healths.

African Americans are overrepresented in essential jobs that—compared to the national average—pay less, offer limited benefits, provide less stability and, during the pandemic, sometimes exposed them to COVID-19 at higher rates than other groups.

These frontline jobs are typically categorized as “precarious employment,” said Ahonen, who studies how work and housing affect population health and well-being.

For example, while grocery store workers have been at the frontlines of the pandemic, they were largely not prioritized in vaccination efforts. They also have fewer options to work remotely or take time off.

Work and health

Employment is not among the recognized “social determinant of health”—factors contributing to a person’s well-being and quality of life. Ahonen said this leaves a blind spot in the study of population health and equity.

“Work is a place where people obtain income and other things related to money and maintenance of health and occupation,” she said. “A job is one of the ways we put people into class locations and social prestige hierarchies. If we forget about it as a place for action, we’re missing a big part of the picture.”

Studies show that precarious employment has been on the rise nationwide and is increasingly affecting college educated white Americans. But women and racial groups remain the most affected.

The fact that African American precarious unemployment rates are higher than those of whites is not new. In fact, it is baked into the nation’s social and economic system, said Ahonen.

“Employment is both an institution itself and shaped by other institutions in our society, which has an unavoidably racist history,” Ahonen says.

Excluded from protection

Federal protection programs and Department of Labor policies excluded agricultural and domestic workers—two areas where people of color have been historically overrepresented. Those programs and policies show how long-standing barriers play a role in limiting African Americans’ chances for social and economic mobility and accumulation of generational wealth.

Some scholars argue that the 1935 Social Security Act’s exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from coverage is only a matter of “administrative feasibility” to collect taxes. But, for the millions of African American workers earning below the national average, the impact of such policies still stands.

“Regardless of how it came about, the result was that a large proportion of African Americans were excluded, at least for a period, from systems of support,” Ahonen said. “Our systems and institutions embody our society, and when we see disproportionate impact, it doesn’t matter whether that was intended or not – it still is.”

Jones at the grocery store agrees.

While he enjoys his work as well as his side gigs, he wishes he can have only one job that pays enough for him to have a steady income and afford basic benefits like health insurance. Ahonen said studying employment as a key prong in a population’s health outcomes is one step to addressing these long-standing disparities.

Emily Q. Ahonen, PhD, MPH is leading a study at Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health to understand what it was like to work in the food industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you worked in any area of the food industry for at least a few months since March 2020, are age 50 or older, and think you are in a precarious employment situation, she is looking to speak to you to understand your experiences. She can be reached at sbsra@iupui.edu or (317) 935-7847.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.