FRONTLINE WORKERS IN THE SOUTHCOAST: A Data Brief from the Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth

By Michael P McCarthy, Salvador Balkus, and David Borges
Click here to download this data brief.

In an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, people across the country are practicing social distancing by avoiding public places and working from home. As a consequence of forced shutdowns, many employees have been laid off for an indefinite period, or in the worst scenario, have lost their jobs entirely. As a result, the nation has become highly dependent on frontline workers; people whose essential jobs must continue functioning and cannot be done from home. These include workers in six important industries:

  • Grocery, Convenience, and Drug Stores: stock and sell food, medicine, and other necessary goods
  • Public Transit: maintain and operate the regional transit systems that get workers, customers, and patients to and from essential businesses
  • Trucking, Warehouse, and Postal Service: stock, package, and ship necessities and other goods to essential businesses and homes
  • Building Cleaning Services: clean, disinfect, and sanitize communal spaces and businesses
  • Select Health Care: provide or support patient care in a healthcare facility or in the community
  • Social Services: provide supportive and emergency services to those in or at-risk of entering crisis

The Public Policy Center has prepared a data brief to better understand who is working on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our analysis demonstrates the following:

Frontline workers represent more than a quarter of the regional workforce

As of 2018, approximately 50,937 people in the SouthCoast work in frontline industries, which represents 26 percent of the region’s total workforce. Comparatively, frontline workers account for 20 percent of the workforce in Massachusetts as a whole. Health care is one of the largest industries in the SouthCoast, and unsurprisingly during a healthcare crisis, the majority of the Southcoast’s frontline workers (55%) are employed in the Select Health Care industry. The Grocery, Convenience, and Drug Stores industry is the second largest, while Public Transit, which in the SouthCoast primarily includes bus workers, is the smallest frontline industry.

Compared to the regional workforce and other frontline industries, Grocery, Convenience, and Drug Store workers are more likely to be under 25 years old. 

There is a relatively high share of workers in the Grocery, Convenience, and Drug Stores industry who are under 25 years of age (27%, compared with 17% in the regional workforce). This industry, and retail in general, is a common sector for part-time employment, and attracts high school students and college-age workers. Indeed, the majority (59%) of frontline workers aged 14 to 18 years are employed in the Grocery, Convenience, and Drug Stores industry.

Frontline workers are more likely to be women, particularly in the Select Health Care and Social Service industries.

Overall, the workforce of the SouthCoast is split almost evenly between men and women, but in the frontline industries, more than two-thirds of the workers are women. This compares favorably to the statewide frontline workforce, in which women represent 65 percent of the workers. Workers in Select Health Care and Social Services industries are more likely to be women. Together, these industries employ 75 percent of all women working in a frontline industry.

Compared to the entire regional workforce, frontline workers are slightly less likely to have children at home.

School and daycare closures across Massachusetts have created childcare challenges for many families. This is especially true for parents working in frontline industries, who are unlikely to have the option to work from home, and who risk transmitting the coronavirus to their families when they return home from their shifts. In frontline industries in the SouthCoast, a smaller share of workers (38%) are responsible for related children than in the SouthCoast as a whole (43%). The Building Cleaning Services industry has the highest percentage of workers with related children at home, at 48 percent, while the Public Transit industry has only 31 percent of workers have children at home.

Workers in the Grocery, Convenience, and Drug Store and Building Cleaning Services industries are more likely to be people of color and Hispanic or Latino than their counterparts in other frontline industries.

The region’s frontline workers are more likely to be people of color, compared to the overall workforce. Excluding Select Health Care, people of color are slightly overrepresented in the frontline workforce relative to their share of the total workforce. In particular, nearly a quarter of all workers in the Grocery, Convenience and Drug Store and Building Cleaning Services industries are non-white. The SouthCoast has historically been less diverse than the state as whole, and the frontline workforce is no exception. Statewide, people of color account for 25 percent of the frontline workforce, which, similar to the SouthCoast, is marginally higher than the share of people of color in the overall state workforce (21%).

Nearly three-quarters of the all frontline workers earn less than $50,000 annually.

The average annual wage for all frontline workers in 2018 was approximately $27,000, which compares to $48,293 for all SouthCoast workers. The average annual wage for frontline workers may seem low, but it is due to some occupations paying the minimum wage and the presence of part-time workers. The chart below groups all workers into income brackets, and demonstrates that nearly three-quarters of the all frontline workers (73%) earn less than $50,000 annually. The Select Health Care and Trucking, Warehouse, and Postal Services industries have the highest shares of workers earning more than $50,000. Workers in the Grocery, Convenience, and Drug Stores, Public Transit and Building Cleaning Services industries are most likely to earn less than $25,000 annually, which is partially due to the concentration of part-time workers in these industries.

One in ten frontline workers earn a wage that is at or below the poverty threshold.

The income-to-poverty ratio for workers in the SouthCoast overall and in frontline industries is calculated by dividing a worker’s total income by the poverty threshold for their household size. Across the region, 9 percent of all workers have incomes that are either at or below the poverty threshold, while 34 percent have incomes that are over 500 percent of the poverty threshold for their household size. As a whole, in this metric, frontline workers look very similar to the regional workforce. Among the frontline industries, there are some exceptions, such as Public Transit and Building Cleaning Services, which both have considerably higher shares of workers with incomes at or below 200 percent of the poverty threshold (38% and 40%, respectively, compared with 27% of frontline workers overall).

Workers in the Building Cleaning Services industry are considerably more likely to be immigrants and non-citizens.

Prior to the pandemic, the foreign-born population of the SouthCoast faces many challenges when engaging with the regional healthcare system, and this is particularly true for non-citizens and newly arrived immigrants, who face cultural and language barriers when engaging with many American institutions. Most of the frontline industries in the SouthCoast have proportions of citizenship similar to the SouthCoast as a whole, and slightly lower than the share of foreign-born workers in statewide frontline workforce (22%). The major exception is the Building Cleaning Services industry, in which 30 percent of workers are not U.S. citizens.

Workers in the Building Cleaning Services industry, who are also more like to be immigrants and people of color, have the lowest rate of health insurance enrollment.

Massachusetts has high rates of insurance enrollment. Statewide, just 3 percent of frontline workers lack health insurance, and the rate for all workers statewide is the same. In the SouthCoast, the proportion of frontline workers who have health insurance is the same as it is for the total regional workforce—96 percent. The Building Cleaning Services industry in the SouthCoast has the lowest proportion of workers with health insurance, at 90 percent. Meanwhile, the Social Services industry has the highest proportion at 99 percent.


This report relies on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 5-year American Community Survey 2014–2018 Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS), which allows for manipulation and crosstabulation of census data. Importantly, the 2014–2018 PUMS is the most recent data available for this level of analysis, and therefore these estimates do not entirely reflect today’s circumstances that may have reduced employment numbers in these frontline industries, such as furloughs and layoffs.

For the most part, the regional definition used here conforms to the traditional definition of the SouthCoast, and excludes only Swansea. The data analyzed is limited to three Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs):

  • PUMA 25-04302, Central Bristol County: Includes Fall River and Somerset
  • PUMA 25-04500, South Bristol County: Includes New Bedford and Fairhaven
  • PUMA 25-04301, Outside New Bedford City & South Plymouth County: Includes the towns surrounding New Bedford

The motivation to perform this type of analysis for the SouthCoast is based on the research brief “A Profile of Frontline Workers in Massachusetts” from Boston Indicators, wherein authors Luc Schuster and Trevor Mattos provide a demographic overview of frontline workers. Their definition of frontline industries originates from a definition developed by the New York City Comptroller’s Office. This report uses a modified version of this definition

The six frontline industries are made up of individual Census-defined industries. These are defined as follows:

Grocery, Convenience, and Drug Stores

  • Grocery and related product merchant wholesalers (INDP=4470)
  • Supermarkets and other grocery stores (INDP=4971)
  • Convenience Stores (INDP=4972)
  • Pharmacies and drug stores (INDP=5070)
  • General merchandise stores, including warehouse clubs and supercenters (INDP=5391)

Public Transit

  • Rail transportation (INDP=6080)
  • Bus service and urban transit (INDP=6180)

Trucking, Warehouse, and Postal Service

  • Truck transportation (INDP=6170)
  • Warehousing and storage (INDP=6390)
  • Postal Service (INDP=6370)

Building Cleaning Services

  • Cleaning Services to Buildings and Dwellings (INDP=7690)

Select Health Care

  • Offices of physicians (INDP=7970)
  • Outpatient care centers (INDP=8090), Home health care services (INDP=8170)
  • Other health care services (INDP=8180)
  • General medical and surgical hospitals, and specialty hospitals (INDP=8191)
  • Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals (INDP=8192)
  • Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) (INDP=8270)
  • Residential care facilities, except skilled nursing facilities (INDP=8290)

Social Services

  • Individual and family services (INDP=8370)
  • Community food and housing, and emergency services (INDP=8380)