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Study: Stay-at-Home COVID Orders Were a Luxury Many Couldn't Afford

Woman server wearing a mask walking past people in outdoor dining tents.

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Key Takeaways

  • A study shows that following stay-at-home orders was a luxury many low-income people couldn't afford.
  • Many unvaccinated adults have not gotten the COVID-19 vaccine yet because they can't afford to miss a day of work due to potential side effects.
  • Providing people from vulnerable communities with paid leaves—not only for the vaccination but also for subsequent side-effect days—may help minimize their risk of getting COVID-19.

A new study finds that people from lower-income communities were less likely to follow stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic because they could not afford to comply or their work could not be done remotely.

By analyzing the mobile phone location data from 45 million anonymous mobile devices in the twelve most-populated regions in the U.S., researchers were able to explore the correlation between the time spent at home and current economic status. The May study was published in Annals of the American Association of Geographers.

How socioeconomic barriers affect the health and safety of vulnerable populations is a topic that's been at the forefront of experts' minds throughout the pandemic. The findings reveal that addressing long-standing social inequities is crucial in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as any future health crises that may occur.

Income Determined Whether People Could Stay Home

Researchers found that people in areas with a higher percentage of wealthy residents and a higher general income spent more time at home during stay-at-home orders compared to people in lower-income communities. Staying home was a luxury that many people could not afford.

“We found that the higher the rate of people with a lower education level and a lower income level, the less time they spend at home, and vice versa,” lead study author Xiao Huang, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of Arkansas Department of Geosciences, tells Verywell.

Aside from a person’s income, the nature of their work also affected their ability to follow stay-at-home orders.

“People in lower-income communities are more likely to work at lower-wage jobs in the service industry where there is no option for flexibility to work from home,” Alycia Santilli, MSW, director of Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, tells Verywell. For instance, grocery store workers, gas station attendants, or delivery riders cannot work remotely unlike workers from other industries.

In addition, individuals working lower-wage jobs are often forced to go back to work to avoid losing employment. The need to meet daily necessities pushed them to continue working, leading to higher COVID-19 risk.

“Compared to the disadvantaged population groups, we believe the socioeconomically privileged people usually have more choices to work remotely with a greater ability to access food and services without going out,” Huang says. “In contrast, people with lower socioeconomic status in poor communities may have to secure their jobs and income by making more outdoor trips.”

These Barriers Affect Vaccination Too

The factors affecting COVID-19 vaccine uptake overlap with these socioeconomic barriers that impacted those who could afford to follow stay-at-home orders.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of unvaccinated adults worry about missing work if the side effects of the vaccine make them feel sick for a day or more. This concern was higher among Black (55%) and Hispanic adults (64%) compared to White adults (41%).

As restrictions lift across the country, people in lower-income communities continue to be at higher risk for COVID-19. The possibility of having to miss one day’s worth of pay due to vaccine side effects is a gamble many cannot take.

“Low-income workers don’t have sick leave,” Darrell Gaskin, PhD, professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “Some are day workers, some work in the gig economy, others are paid based on how much they do. These [people] can’t afford to miss a payday. Also, they may have a spouse or partner who is also struggling to maintain employment. So the economic pressure compels these persons to work and forgo the vaccine if it may cost them a few days of work.”

There are many financial barriers to getting vaccinated, including transportation costs to vaccination sites.

“Fear of losing a day of pay is a major concern as this can mean the difference in having a meal on the table for their families,” Santilli says. “However, it’s important to remember that while the side effects can keep you out of work for a day, being infected with COVID-19 can keep you out of work for weeks and maybe even months.”

What This Means For You

If you haven't gotten vaccinated, and are worried about losing a day's worth of pay, check with your employer to see if they're offering paid time off for vaccine appointments. You can also get free Lyfts and Ubers to and from vaccine sites, as well as free childcare in certain areas. For a list of participating companies, check here.

What Can Employers and the U.S. Government Do?

Getting vaccinated should be made easier by offering shots at the workplace and giving employees paid leave to recover from side effects, Gaskin says.

Santilli agrees, adding that “workers shouldn’t have to choose between wages and their health. It’s not only the right thing to do. It makes good economic sense for businesses to prevent their workers from getting sick with COVID-19.”

According to Sicheng Wang and Hanxue Wei, co-authors of the study, the U.S. government—as well as employers—can help vulnerable communities remain safe and get vaccinated by:

  • Providing free protection supplies such as face masks and hand sanitizers to people in need
  • Giving incentives for vaccination, such as paid leave not only for the vaccine day but also for the subsequent side-effect days
  • Increasing the accessibility of vaccination facilities in vulnerable neighborhoods
  • Collaborating with grassroots organizations and offer adequate community support
  • Providing vaccine education to increase confidence and trust in vaccines

“Because many people who are lower-income rely on public transportation, their risk for COVID-19 is further exacerbated by this exposure,” Santilli says. “Businesses can partner with vaccine providers to host pop-up clinics, making it convenient for workers to get vaccinated.”

Recognizing the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic and understanding why certain populations are more vulnerable to COVID-19 is vital for further reducing infection rates in the country. Experts say it's crucial to address existing barriers that affect the health and safety of people from lower-income communities.

“COVID-19 has demonstrated the failure of the American economic system, [that] people who are minimum wage workers cannot make ends meet,” Santilli says. “COVID-19 has also illuminated how important it is to pay our essential workers fair wages. If we consider them truly essential, businesses—and consumers—must demonstrate this by paying workers what they deserve. The U.S. government must pass legislation to increase the minimum wage nationally.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Huang X, Lu J, Gao S, Wang S, Liu Z, Wei H. Staying at home is a privilege: evidence from fine-grained mobile phone location data in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ann Am Assoc Geogr. Published online May 27, 2021. doi:10.1080/24694452.2021.1904819

  2. Kaiser Family Foundation. KFF COVID-19 vaccine monitor - April 2021. Updated May 6, 2021.