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Study will examine impact of pandemic on women of color, essential workers

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted millions of people across the world, U.S. reports have shown that low-wage frontline and essential workers in this country, such as cashiers, fast food employees, childcare providers, emergency responders, and bus drivers, have been among those affected the hardest by the virus over the last few months.

image of Rachel Woodson Goode, Ph.D.
Rachel Goode, Ph.D.
Women of color, in particular, continue to be especially vulnerable to coronavirus, both as an infection and as a threat to their livelihoods and well-being, largely because they are employed in occupations where working from home isn’t a possibility, said Rachel Goode, an assistant professor at the UNC School of Social Work.

“These essential workers, often women of color, have been on the front lines of this pandemic and are making choices about how to take care of themselves, despite the stress of family and childcare responsibilities, systemic racism, and stressful and traumatic work environments,” said Goode, whose research addresses racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in obesity and eating disorders. “Their stories need to be told. We must learn how to properly support and care for our first responders.”

Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Carolina-based N.C. Policy Collaboratory, Goode and her fellow investigators, professors Trenette Clark Goings and Mimi Chapman, research associate professor and co-investigator Steve Day, and Ph.D. research assistant Anjalee Sharma will spend the remainder of the year working to learn more about the coping strategies of these essential workers, with a goal toward strengthening services for these individuals.

The funding is part of $29 million in total grants that the collaboratory awarded to 85 research projects across 14 UNC-system schools with a focus on treatment, community testing and prevention of COVID-19. These research projects are intended to provide new data and information to North Carolina lawmakers and policymakers to help guide the state’s pandemic response. The funding comes from a $1.5 billion coronavirus relief package approved by state legislators and signed by Governor Roy Cooper. The bill includes $85 million for five North Carolina universities to study and fight the virus.

For their project, social work researchers are collaborating with Village HeartBEAT (VHB), a division of the Mecklenburg County Department of Public Health, to complete the study, “Essential Women of Color: Coping with COVID-19.” Because VHB has been providing COVID-19 testing and education to vulnerable populations during this pandemic, the organization will assist with recruiting participants. The researchers plan to survey 200 women of color who are essential workers. Up to 25 more women will be recruited for in-depth interviews.

Part of what researchers hope to learn is how participants’ behaviors have changed as a result of trying to manage the physical, emotional and financial stress of the pandemic. For example, research has shown a link between the overuse of food and alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress, Goode noted.

Given that this nation will likely face other pandemics, researchers, social work practitioners, policymakers and service providers need to better understand the ways these essential workers maintain the well-being of themselves and their families and what outside supports are most useful to them, Goode added.

“Our findings will have implications for childcare, child well-being, substance use, nutrition and disordered eating, and mental health, among others,” Goode said. “Moreover, the results of this study will provide additional information to enhance the services offered by clinicians and social service agencies that work tirelessly to take care of our communities.”

That this study centers women of color is also vital to understanding how and why these women have long been on the front lines, Goings added.

“Many women of color, like people of color generally, have helped build and support this country during national crises with their efforts being undervalued and underpaid,” Goings said. “In addition to understanding these women’s coping strategies and informing practice and policy, I hope our work raises the question of why women of color are over represented in low-wage occupations. When we address these social determinants of health, we will move closer toward achieving equity for all.”

image of an African American woman with her back turned behind the counter of a coffee shop.