Anything But Static: Risks of COVID-19 to workers in Canada

Anything But Static: Risks of COVID-19 to workers in Canada

A data visualization that explores how COVID-19 affects different workers, from exposure to disease, ability to work from home, and potential of economic and income precarity
Anything But Static: Risks of COVID-19 to workers in Canada
Viet Vu
Manager, Economic Research
Nisa Malli
BII+E Alumni
April 3, 2020
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In a space of a few months, COVID-19 has grown into a global pandemic with implications that reach far beyond the realm of public health, fundamentally shifting how we work and live. One of the most prominent responses is the introduction of social and physical distancing measures, including the closure of schools and non-essential businesses and organizations, the cancellation of events and even small gatherings, and restrictions on international and domestic travel. Such measures aim to slow the spread of COVID-19 by reducing the physical proximity between individuals and the risk of disease transmission.

Prior to this, many workers in Canada were already at high-risk of infection at workexposed to disease and infection at least once a week on the job and working in close (arm’s length) proximity to others. This includes healthcare workers (e.g., respiratory therapists and pharmacists), education workers (e.g., early childhood educators and secondary school teachers), and service workers (e.g., cashiers, drivers, and cleaners). Today, at least temporarily, many workers have shifted to online and remote work, moving meetings and teaching to video conferencing and converting from storefront service to home delivery.

However, the ability to maintain employment while avoiding the risks of commuting and on-the-job infection is not shared equally among workers and occupations. Some workers, such as frontline healthcare professionals, do not have the luxury of working from home during these times. Other workers, including those in service occupations who often experience higher rates of employment and income precarity, such as grocery store clerks, have been deemed essential services. Many businesses that are still open have adjusted their operations to reduce transmission, including limiting the number of customers allowed in at a time and indicating floor spacing of two meters for all queues. Some have recognized this increased risk and workplace stress by offering temporary wage increases and employer-paid sick days for workers who did not previously receive them. 

We developed this data visualization in order to paint a picture of occupational exposure to diseases and infections, to characterize how COVID-19 may affect workers under different labour conditions and highlight the ability to work from home. This work builds on analysis developed by Lazaro Gamio for the New York Times, who graphed occupational exposure to COVID-19 in the United States



Data behind the visualization

To create this data visualization, we relied on O*Net, a US-based occupational taxonomy that includes detailed work context information gathered through interviews with workers. We focused on two measures: physical proximity to others (how closely one works with others in a typical work day) and the frequency by which workers are exposed to diseases and infections. This measure is not specific to COVID-19, which is transmitted through bodily fluid droplets and can live on surfaces, but it reflects a broader estimate of disease exposure on the job. Proximity to others is measured on a scale from working by oneself to being near touching or touching others on the job. Exposure to disease is measured on a frequency basis, from never to every day.

As O*Net is a US-based taxonomy, we used our own crosswalk to link O*Net to the Canadian context and combined it with the 2016 Long-Form Canadian Census to report data on Canadian occupations, focusing in particular on pay, labour conditions (such as part-time status), and other factors (such as age). Finally, we used the 2016 General Social Survey on Work and Life of Canadians to identify which occupational groups were functionally able to perform their work from home, at the time of the survey (even if they did not).

The impact of COVID-19 does not just stop at health issues. For example, many low income workers have less savings and may be disproportionately impacted by changes or reductions to their income or employment status, putting them in further income and potentially housing precarity at a time when the public is strongly encouraged to stay indoors.

Occupations most at risk of being exposed to diseases

Some of the occupations most at risk of being exposed to diseases or infections are not surprising: respiratory therapists, nurses, and other front-line medical staff are on the top end of the graph. However, it is important to note that there are other non-healthcare workers who are highly exposed, including cleaners, bus drivers, and couriers.

Some occupations appear to be at high-risk, according to these measures, but their working conditions have significantly changed. For example, education workers including K-12 teachers and early childhood educators are ordinarily at a high-risk of being exposed to diseases or infections. However, most educational institutions in Canada have either closed or shifted to an online delivery model in response to this pandemic, characterizing how quickly work contexts are shifting. Many occupations are shifting their business models or partially closing: dentists are rescheduling non-emergency procedures, physiotherapists and other paramedical professions and bodyworkers such as personal trainers are offering online sessions, and many stores are launching or expanding their online sales and local deliveries.

However, there are many occupations where working remotely or working from home is not a possibility: cooks, cashiers, and emergency services, for example, still need to physically show up to their workplace. The impact of COVID-19 for such workers has varied greatly. Some businesses have shut down entirely, either laying off workers or keeping them on the payroll, with the support of work-sharing options and forthcoming federal wage subsidies. Others still need to show up to work every day, albeit often under new health and safety guidelines.

An occupational lens by itself does not perfectly measure the risks that different workers face from COVID-19, as not all workers who are exposed to the disease will face similar risks when contracting the disease. A full picture of worker risk would require looking at individual characteristics such as age and pre-existing conditions, as well as local work environments. The Public Health Agency of Canada has stated that older adults (65+) and individuals at all ages with pre-existing conditions, including respiratory disease, cardiac disease, diabetes, and compromised immune systems, are at higher risk if they contract COVID-19. We lack publicly available data on health conditions, however one aspect we can focus on is worker age. In Canada, there are more than 5.5 million workers over the age of 65 and many are in jobs that are high-risk and cannot be done from home. This includes 13% of bus/subway drivers and taxi/uber drivers and 12% of specialist physicians.

How COVID-19-related economic disruption is affecting different workers

The impact of COVID-19 does not just stop at health issues. For example, many low income workers have less savings and may be disproportionately impacted by changes or reductions to their income or employment status, putting them in further income and potentially housing precarity at a time when the public is strongly encouraged to stay indoors. Workers who have less secure jobs, particularly part-time workers, are also at risk of having their lives disrupted through COVID-19. Support from the federal government, including the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the wage subsidy for small and medium-sized businesses, is intended to help cushion these shocks to individual workers and their families who have lost work, while keeping businesses afloat.

Finally, other groups of workers, such as visible minority identities, may experience further challenges. Xenophobic sentiments relating to COVID-19 and directed at specific Asian communities are on the rise, particularly aimed at workers still operating in public. Many visible minorities work in occupations that are at high-risk of exposure to disease and that require physically showing up to work, such as home support workers, cleaners, general practitioners, and nurse aides. Such health and economic precarity could be compounded by other structural barriers these groups face, related to COVID-19 or not. 

As of the launch of this data visualization, we are still at the early stages of this pandemic in Canada. There is much we do not know about the disease and how it will impact our economy and workers. However, we know that many workers are already finding themselves in precarious circumstances. In the first few weeks since social and physical distancing requirements were put into place, over 1 million Canadians applied for Employment Insurance and the federal government anticipates 4 million people will apply for the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit.  

As this situation unfolds, the Brookfield Institute is shifting our thinking towards how policymakers can best support the millions of people living in Canada who are being adversely affected by this crisis. If you are interested in working with us, need our help, or would like us to highlight work that exists elsewhere, please reach out to us at

For media enquiries, please contact Nina Rafeek Dow, Marketing + Communications Specialist at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.