Defining the Care Workforce: A New Way to Think about Employment in Healthcare, Education, and Social Services

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November 17, 2022

Leigh Wedenoja


Although the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated problems in the care workforce, those problems existed long before the pandemic hit and have persisted following the removal of most pandemic restrictions and the increased availability of vaccines. Prior to the pandemic there were shortages of childcare workers, home health aides, nurses, and teachers. The shortage of childcare workers, in particular, has continued to get worse even after the acute period of the pandemic has passed with many workers either leaving the workforce completely or taking higher paid jobs in retail or food service.

The COVID-19 pandemic then threw the United States’ care workforce even further into crisis by disrupting healthcare, childcare, education, and other care-related services. Hospitals in particularly hard hit areas rapidly shifted from providing elective and outpatient procedures to treating COVID-19 patients. Patients canceled and policies prohibited elective procedures and dental appointments as concerns of infection began to rise and stay-at-home orders closed many schools and childcare centers. Care workers at high risk or with high-risk household members exited the workforce, families canceled the services of home health aides in order to reduce the probability of infection for vulnerable relatives, and parents—disproportionately women—left the workforce to care for children at home.

A stable, well-trained care workforce is not only crucial to the well-being of communities, but the functioning of the rest of the economy. Care workers are responsible for maintaining the education, health, and general welfare of the population. In recent years, journalists have told the stories of these workers and families affected by the shortage. State and federal leaders have called for policies and investments that will bolster these sectors. One of the hurdles to effectively addressing the challenges in these sectors is that the care workforce is amorphously defined and understudied. The goal of this report is to characterize the occupations that make up the US care workforce and the people who work in those occupations.

The report will proceed as follows—first we discuss the definition of the care economy and care workforce, then the occupations that make up that workforce with their required education and standard wages, then we discuss the people (mostly women) who make up the care workforce with a special focus on the lowest paid occupations—childcare workers and home health aides. The report concludes by discussing how New York’s care workforce differs from the nation as a whole. While generally very similar, care workers in New York are more likely to be immigrants and have, on average, higher wages.

Read the full report.