Metropolitan Chicago’s essential workers disproportionately low-income, people of color

Due to Governor Pritzker’s Executive Order 20-10, CMAP looked at the 11 broad occupations classified as essential workers in metropolitan Chicago to identify who these workers are and where they live. CMAP research shows that essential workers from disadvantaged communities—particularly people of color and those who live in low-income communities—are playing critical roles in providing healthcare and keeping the transportation, food supply, and other essentials systems functioning during this crisis. Understanding these trends highlights the need for collaborative efforts to address disparities in economic opportunity.

Early research indicates that people of color in Chicago and across the country, are contracting and dying from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at greater rates due to a complex web of social and economic factors. Federal, state, and local COVID-19 decisions have included some important protections and assistance to address communities’ disparate impacts and ability to recover. But more can be done to address the lasting needs in our communities and promote pathways for upward economic mobility.

ON TO 2050, metropolitan Chicago’s comprehensive regional plan, calls for inclusive growth that draws on greater local economic and workforce development, infrastructure investment, and community building in different and diverse parts of the region.

Where essential workers live

This map shows that essential workers live in greater concentration along Chicago’s South and West Sides, in nearby south, southwest, and west suburban Cook, and near key job centers in Lake, DuPage, and Will counties. Like other economic outcomes, occupational patterns are often segregated demographically and geographically at the community level. As a result, a map of essential workers shows higher concentrations in some communities than others — like freight and manufacturing workers in communities around O’Hare International Airport or food service and healthcare support occupations near major population centers.


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Many essential workers live in lower-income communities

Essential workers also disproportionately live in lower-income communities, with almost 60 percent living in census tracts with a median household income below $70,500 (regional median). Those in the region’s lowest income communities, shown in the map below in dark orange, are especially overrepresented. One in four essential workers (26.8 percent) live in tracts that have a median household income at least 30 percent below the regional median, compared to just 19.3 percent of the workforce overall. Together, these trends reflect the concentration of disadvantage and inequities in some neighborhoods due to the lasting effects of historic discrimination and segregation. Previous research has shown that outcomes for residents in economically disconnected areas tend to lag behind the Chicago region overall, with longer commutes, lower educational attainment, and higher unemployment.


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Many essential jobs are disproportionately held by people of color

More than half (54.1 percent) of essential workers are people of color, compared to 43.9 percent of all regional workers. Although Hispanic workers make up 21 percent of regional workers, they are especially overrepresented in construction (39.3 percent) and food service occupations (38.1 percent). Black workers are most overrepresented in healthcare support (36.6 percent) and protective service jobs (29.1 percent), compared to 13.8 percent of the workforce overall. Other occupations in manufacturing, transportation and material moving, and services like building and grounds maintenance also rely heavily on people of color.  

About the data and creating additional analyses

This initial analysis uses the most recent five-year estimates from the American Community Survey (2014–2018) to provide estimates of where workers live by occupation at the tract level in table S2401. Estimates on race and ethnicity reflect the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-WI-IN metropolitan statistical area and are obtained from tables B24010 B, D, H, and I. “Essential occupations” were identified using Executive Order 20-10 (COVID-19 Executive Order No. 8), as well as additional guidance provided by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

A person walking through quiet city streets, wearing a mask

Essential workers are employed in 11 broad occupation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Standard Occupational Classification codes, including:

  • Community and social services (21-0000)
  • Health practitioners and other technical occupations (29-0000)
  • Healthcare support (31-000)
  • Protective service (33-0000)
  • Food preparation and service (35-0000)
  • Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance (37-0000)
  • Farming, fishing, and forestry (45-0000)
  • Construction and extraction (47-0000)
  • Installation, maintenance, and repair (49-0000)
  • Production (51-0000)
  • Transportation and material moving (53-0000)

Recent shutdowns and closures do not follow these rigid classifications and segmenting the workforce for research is imprecise. This initial analysis includes all regional workers in the occupations listed above, but does not include workers in other frontline industries that are outside of these categories. As a result, estimates exclude some workers in industries that are hard at work during this crisis, while also including some workers who are unable to work, even though they are in essential occupations. For example, grocery store clerks are working at the frontlines, even though they are classified in a non-essential occupation (retail sales workers). However, school bus drivers are unable to work in areas where schools are closed, even though they are in an essential occupation (passenger vehicle and public transit operators). Still, the vast majority of workers in the essential occupations are essential workers.

The R script used to perform this analysis is available on CMAP’s Github page. Partners are encouraged to build on this analysis.