Online Databite February 23 2023

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

Databite No. 153

Amanda Lenhart
Livia Garofalo
Angela Stuesse
Irene Tung

“I just think that the company could do better if they wanted to, [rather] than just looking at us as just numbers, and try and see us as human beings, as people that have been risking their lives every single day for them.”

—Essential worker

The COVID-19 pandemic radically changed the lives of essential workers in America, shifting the conditions, timing, equipment, and spatial practices of their work, and expanding surveillance inside the workplace. And while employers collected increasing amounts of data about workers’ health, little of it was shared with workers themselves. The result was an information vacuum that left workers in the dark about their potential exposure and risk, fueling immense anxiety and concern for themselves and those around them.

Data & Society’s new report Essentially Unprotected is based on interviews with 50 people who worked in grocery, warehousing, manufacturing, or meat and food processing during the pandemic. The report highlights their experiences and efforts to manage the confusing and often terrifying challenges of the in-person pandemic workplace. 

In this conversation, we examine the social, economic, and regulatory environment that laid the groundwork for serious information gaps surrounding infections. We explore how technology contributed to the collection of data and worsened workers’ stress and frustration — and, in select cases, facilitated information-sharing that protected workers’ privacy and addressed their fears.




La pandemia de COVID-19 ha alterado radicalmente la vida de los trabajadores esenciales en Estados Unidos, cambiando las condiciones, tiempos, herramientas, y espacios y expandiendo la atención en los lugares de trabajo. Y mientras los empleadores recolectaban una cantidad creciente de datos sobre la salud de sus empleados, los datos no eran compartidos con ellos. El resultado fue un vació de información que dejó a los trabajadores en la oscuridad sobre potenciales contagios y riesgos, alimentando la ansiedad y la preocupación por ellos mismos y las personas que estaban alrededor. 

El nuevo informe de Data & Society, Esencialmente Desprotegidos, se basa en entrevistas con 50 trabajadores y trabajadoras que trabajaron durante la pandemia en supermercados, depósitos, en la industria manufacturera, de procesamiento de carne y de alimentos. El informe pone en evidencia las experiencias y los esfuerzos de los trabajadores para manejar los desafíos desorientadores y tal vez aterradores del lugar de trabajo en la pandemia. 

En esta conversación, examinamos el contexto social, económico y normativo que estableció las condiciones para estas brechas de información. Analizamos cómo la tecnología contribuyó a la recolección de datos y empeoró el estrés y la frustración de los trabajadores, y cómo en cambio, en algunos casos, esta recolección facilitó el intercambio de información que protegió la privacidad de los trabajadores y abordó sus miedos.


Angela Stuesse | @astuesse

Angela Stuesse (Ph.D. University of Texas, Austin) is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is broadly interested in social inequality, and her research and teaching interests include neoliberal globalization, migration, race, labor, human rights, and methodologies of activist research. Her first book Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South (University of California Press 2016), explores how new Latino migration into Mississippi’s poultry industry has impacted communities and prospects for worker organizing.


Irene Tung

Irene Tung is a Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst at the National Employment Law Project. Irene’s work includes research and advocacy related to at-will employment, with particular attention to employers’ use of new surveillance technologies for the purposes of disciplining and terminating workers. She holds a PhD in economic geography. Previously, she served as the director of organizing at Make the Road New York, an organization in New York City that builds the power of immigrant and working-class communities.




Production: Rigoberto Lara Guzmán & Tunika Onnekikami 

Web Support: Alessa Erawan

Design: Gloria Mendoza 

Editorial: Eryn Loeb

Additional support provided by Data & Society’s Engagement and Accounting teams.