The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on essential workers, pivotal employees who helped Americans through the pandemic, but who are not always adequately supported and protected at work and by institutions in our society. Emily Ahonen, associate professor at the IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health, says 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. African Americans are overrepresented in essential jobs that — compared to the national average — pay less, offer limited benefits and other protections, provide less stability and, during the pandemic, sometimes exposed them to COVID-19 at higher rates than other groups. Employment with these characteristics is called “precarious employment,” says Ahonen, who studies how work and housing affect population health and well-being and contribute to population health inequities. 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 limited opportunity to work remotely or take time off. Because employment quality is not among the most frequently recognized social determinants of health or factors contributing to a person’s well-being and quality of life, Ahonen says it leaves a blind spot in the study of population health and equity. Studies show that precarious employment has been on the rise nationwide and is increasingly affecting college-educated white Americans. However, women and racialized groups remain the most affected and Ahonen says the fact that African American precarious unemployment rates are disproportionately high is not new. In fact, it is baked into the nation’s social and economic systems and institutions, which have developed within our unavoidably racist historical context. Federal protection programs and U.S. Department of Labor policies have excluded agricultural and domestic workers in the past, two areas where people of color have been historically overrepresented, showing how sociopolitical values have played a role in limiting African Americans’ chances to benefit from resources for workers which support and protect health. Ahonen says our systems and institutions reflect our society, and, in terms of acting on the health consequences of those institutions and systems, when we see disproportionate impact, it doesn’t matter whether that was intended or not — the disproportionate impact remains and we must address it. Studying employment quality as a key prong in a population’s health outcomes is one step to addressing long-standing disparities, she says.
In other news, a federal judge recently overturned the state of California's three-decade-old ban on assault weapons, ruling that the ban violates the constitutional right to bear arms. But after the U.S. saw one of its worst years of gun violence in 2020, Indiana University Professor Paul Helmke says making it easier for more people to get guns is the wrong move. Helmke is also a former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and former head of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. He notes that in 2020, 43,000 Americans died due to guns, either by murder, accident, or suicide. Many are asking what can be done; Helmke says the main thing is, we need to do something. More guns lead to more gun violence, he says. Instead, we need smart laws that make it harder for dangerous people to get guns, especially semiautomatic weapons, the kind of weapon often used in mass shootings. To reduce gun violence in the future, Helmke says, semiautomatic weapons or the high-capacity magazines that feed bullets to the weapons should be harder to get throughout the United States. Changes to gun laws in this country are difficult, though, Helmke says, in part because of the leadership of the National Rifle Association. The NRA’s leaders, he says, have turned the organization into a political institution and are out there opposing any legislation that would reduce gun violence.