U.S. Health and Essential Workers



Health and essential workers have played an extraordinary role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have put their health and wellbeing at risk to ensure that people are able to access the essential services they need.

Despite their critical work, health and essential workers have faced enormous challenges in doing their jobs and the U.S. government has not adequately protected them. Shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) have meant that health and essential workers have often had to perform their jobs without adequate protection and in unsafe environments. At the end of August 2020, at least 1077 frontline healthcare workers had died of COVID-19.


Tainika Somerville, a Certified Nursing Assistant for 20 years, was fired in April 2020 from Bridgeview Medical Center in Cook County, Illinois, where she had worked since September 2018, after she filmed a Facebook live stream denouncing lack of PPE at her workplace. According to Tainika, workers were missing N95 respirators and shoe and hair coverings, and were forced to re-use gowns. Tainika’s case was resolved after a grievance proceeding in an arbitration process with Bridgeview Medical Center.

Health and essential workers have often experienced high workloads and increasing anxiety and stress as a result. In some cases, they have not received fair remuneration and compensation. They have faced repression and reprisals from authorities and their employers for raising safety concerns, and in some cases have been subject to violence and stigma from members of the public.

While COVID-19 has thrown many of these concerns into sharp focus, they reflect long-standing structural issues that have affected health and social systems for years, including a systematic lack of investment and preparedness, poor infrastructure, and the inadequate mainstreaming of human rights in health system design.

The U.S. has clear human rights obligations to protect health and essential workers in the context of COVID-19, including their right to health; just and favorable conditions of work; freedom of expression and peaceful assembly; freedom from discrimination and violence; and the obligation of all states to provide international cooperation and assistance for the realization of human rights.

Protecting health and essential workers’ rights is crucial to ensure a stronger and more rights-respecting response to the pandemic. Health workers are valuable sources of information about the spread and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and government responses to it. Ensuring health and essential workers are protected is a significant step towards ensuring that everyone is protected.


  • Ensure that public and private employers provide all health and essential workers with adequate PPE to protect themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic, in line with international standards.
  • Recognize COVID-19 as an occupational disease, and ensure that workers who contract COVID-19 as a result of work-related activities receive adequate compensation and medical and other necessary care. This should include all health and essential workers irrespective of the nature of their contract, including workers belonging to groups who have faced structural discrimination.
  • Conduct a comprehensive, effective, and independent review regarding the U.S. government’s preparedness for and responses to the pandemic. This review should consider whether the rights of health and essential workers – including the right to just and favorable conditions of work and the right to freedom of expression – were adequately protected. Where government agencies did not adequately protect human rights, the U.S. government should provide effective and accessible remedies.
  • Investigate cases where workers faced reprisals for raising health and safety concerns, and provide effective remedy to those who have been unjustly treated including by reinstating workers who lost their jobs for speaking out. Provide opportunities for workers to raise health and safety concerns without retaliation.
  • Investigate any attacks or acts of violence against health and essential workers and hold perpetrators accountable. Some workers may be at additional or specific risk due to their multiple and intersecting identities, which should be factored into any response.
  • Collect and publish data by occupation, including categories of health and other essential workers who have contracted COVID-19, and how many have died as a result. This data should be disaggregated on the basis of prohibited grounds of discrimination, including but not limited to gender, caste, ethnicity, and nationality wherever possible, as well as place of work.


  • Exposed, Silenced, Attacked: Failures to protect health and essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, July 2020 (available here)
  • The Cost of Curing: Health workers’ rights in the Americas during COVID-19 and beyond, May 2020 (available here)
  • Health Workers Deaths Due to COVID-19, September 2020 (available here)


Denise Bell


(917) 583 8584

[email protected]