• Description

In March 2020, local governments across the United States began instituting stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of COVID-19. Key to these orders were exceptions for "essential workers," in a variety of industries who were expected to continue reporting in person. Rather than keep essential workers home, politicians and public health officials recommended, or mandated, a number of changes to their workplaces—social distancing and masking, but also temperature scans and contact tracing. While the exact mandates varied greatly from state to state, many of these interventions relied on the introduction of public health surveillance into the workplace. But it remained unclear just how invasive such surveillance would be, and how the health data collected from essential workers would be handled by employers.

Our research shows that, with few exceptions, essential workplaces did not use the pandemic to justify new, invasive forms of surveillance. Data was collected, but most often in haphazard ways, and the results were often kept for the benefit of the employer, and rarely made available to workers. Many of the workers we spoke to didn't care where their data went. What they wanted was to know who specifically in their workplace has tested positive for COVID-19 in a timely manner so that they could decide how to protect themselves and people in their homes. Privacy protection laws permitted employers to collect COVID-19 infection data about employees but did not allow the details about who was infected to be shared with employees. Workers wanting access to private health information to protect themselves were often at odds with employers navigating a confusing legal landscape that requires medical information be held as confidential.

Essentially Unprotected: Health Data and Surveillance of Essential Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic