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COVID-19 and Ontario’s Sales and Service Workers: Who is most vulnerable?



On Tuesday, March 24, the Ontario government published a list of essential workplaces that would be permitted to continue with business as usual, and stipulated that all remaining, non-essential workplaces were to close in order to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 across the province. This list was then updated on April 3. As the virus continues to spread (with 8,961 confirmed cases in Ontario as of April 15), essential workers are expressing increasing concern over the health risks they face on the job.

Many people who work outside of healthcare are now asking for personal protective equipment; others are requesting to stay home regardless of their essential workplace status. The concern is fuelled, in part, by recent reports of public-facing service workers testing positive for COVID-19. Six TTC operators, one fare collector, two LCBO workers, and a Longo’s employee are among the recent cases. This highlights the health risks being faced by those working in sales and service occupations. With the anticipated spread of COVID-19 across Ontario, these risks will continue to be exacerbated.

This study explores the vulnerability of Ontario’s sales and service workers relating to the risk of COVID-19 exposure. More specifically, it provides insight into the number and types of workers facing increased health risk as a result of having been deemed essential in Ontario. We use available data on disease exposure, physical proximity to others and earnings by occupation to build on publications by the New York Times and the Brookfield Institute. Our study also broadly identifies socio-economic characteristics of the sales and service worker population.

The information is intended to help inform and refine the design of supportive policy and related health safety measures targeting sales and service occupations in Ontario.


Sales and service occupations at a glance

Using the definition from Statistics Canada, sales and service occupations contain “retail and wholesale sales occupations and customer and personal service occupations related to a wide range of industries, such as accommodation and food services, travel, tourism and cleaning services”.

According to the March 2020 Labour Force Survey, there were seven million people working in Ontario. Approximately 1.55 million, or 22.1 percent, were employed in sales and service occupations. The demographic profile below and the pursuant risk analysis are based on data from the 2016 Census of Canada, which provides a more detailed view of Ontario’s sales and service occupations.

Who makes up sales and service workers in Ontario? A demographic breakdown from the 2016 Census of Canada. There were 1,676,230 sales and service workers in Ontario as of 2016. 57% female, 43% male. 56% full-time, 44% part-time. 30% do not own their properties. 28% students. 29% landed immigrants or permanent residents.

In profiling Ontario’s sales and service workers, we can identify several factors that lead certain subpopulations to face higher risks of contracting or transmitting the virus. This helps generate a picture of the people making up this sector, and also points to potential vulnerabilities, such as limited alternate employment opportunities, income constraints and/or reduced familiarity and overall access to system support, such as public health insurance. These factors include worker age, commuting mode of transportation, eligibility for social services and household composition, as follows:

  • As of the 2016 Census, approximately 180,000 (11 percent) of the province’s sales and service workers were 60 years old or older;
  • 344,000 (23 percent) take public transit to work, while another 175,000 were driven to work by someone else, including carpool drivers. Together these two modes of transportation were used regularly by more than 30 percent of the province’s sales and service workers;
  • In 2016, 243,000 (16 percent) of Ontario’s sales and service workers were members of low-income families (measured by the after-tax low income measure), a subpopulation that does not often have the financial security to be voluntarily absent from work;
  • Further, in 2016, 26,000 (1.5 percent) were not citizens or permanent residents. While it is possible that some have since become citizens or permanent residents or have returned to their countries of citizenship, those that remain are not eligible for all social services, such as access to public healthcare.

These mark important considerations, both in terms of exacerbating health-related vulnerabilities (i.e. the need to continue to work even if feeling ill, limited access to health benefits if part-time), which is the focus of this paper, as well as socioeconomic impacts, which will be addressed in a subsequent phase of this study.


Understanding the vulnerability of essential sales and service workers 

For this study, we mapped the list of designated essential workplaces in Ontario to industries (NAICS) to understand:

  1. How many sales and service workers in Ontario are at risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19 after being deemed “essential” by the government of Ontario;
  2. How potential COVID-19 exposure differs by occupation within the sales and service occupational group; and
  3. How differences in earnings across essential service occupations compound the risk of COVID-19 exposure for those who cannot afford to be voluntarily absent from their jobs.

We found that 67 percent, or one million, of all individuals in sales and service occupations are considered essential staff. This is determined by the number of sales and service workers  working in essential industries (NAICS[1]). The number of people employed per occupation is represented by the size of the bubbles in the graph below.

The graph below also allows us to understand the potential exposure risk of these essential Sales and Service workers to COVID-19, broken down by occupation. This is a replication of The Workers Who Face the Greatest Coronavirus Risk by the New York Times. The exposure risk of each occupation is assessed by two key factors: exposure to disease and physical proximity to others in order to proxy overall risk exposure.[2] Each bubble represents an essential Sales and Service occupation. The bigger the bubble, the greater number of people who do that job. The vertical position of the bubble measures often a given occupation is exposed to disease or infection. The horizontal position of the bubble measures how close the occupation requires you to be to others during the workday.

Occupations in “Funeral directors and embalmers” and “Pursers and flight attendants” employ relatively few Ontarians. However, they are the top essential sales and service occupations with the greatest exposure to disease and infection. Together, these occupations employed 7,400 Ontarians according to the 2016 Census.

Also of note are occupations falling within the centre region of the graph, such as light duty cleaners and janitors, caretakers and building superintendents.These occupations may point to another vulnerable group in terms of repeated and prolonged proximity to surface and /living quarters, as anecdotally evidenced by patterns of infection exhibited by select individuals or groups.

The largest circles in the graph, which represent the most individuals, include “Food counter attendants, kitchen helpers and related support occupations”, which employed 139,000 Ontarians, retail salespersons, which employed 108,000 Ontarians, and cashiers which employed 94,000. All three occupations score between 78 to 79 on their physical proximity to others, which translates to moderately close proximity. Physical proximity to others is currently considered a key determinant for potential exposure to COVID-19.

The total population of Ontarians represented by the grouping of occupations highlighted in red at the bottom right of the graph is 544,000. This quadrant includes the occupations noted in the preceding paragraph, as well as other sales and service occupations highlighted with a physical proximity score of 0.7 or above and exposure to disease and infection score of 0.3 or below.


Shouldering the burden: Median income and essential sales and service workers

The following chart plots the median hourly wage of sales and service occupations relative to those of other essential workers (using Toronto-based data).[3] This visual clearly shows that there are significant numbers of people being asked to shoulder a burden of risk for what essentially amounts to minimum wage (shown in the bottom right of the graph below).

Unfortunately, should workers decide to voluntarily leave their jobs due to heightened risk of exposure to the virus, they would not be eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Many low-income workers in this situation are therefore facing pressure to continue working in jobs that may compromise their health.


Initial Insights and Considerations

  1. The above analysis observes differences in risk across Ontario’s sales and service occupations, ranging from high-exposure risk (e.g. pursers and flight attendants and funeral directors) to moderate exposure risk but high physical proximity to others (e.g.  retail salespersons and cashiers). There are also other occupations where workers may be at risk due to prolonged exposure to surfaces that are hospitable to the virus (e.g. cleaners, food and beverage servers).
  2. Sales and service occupations are characterized by a high proportion of part-time workers, a significant number of individuals 60 years of age and over, as well as immigrants who are not citizens or permanent residents. These subpopulations are more vulnerable than others due to lower financial security, higher health risk and limited access to social services respectively.
  3. The need for these workers to continue operating as “business as usual” must be weighed against the health risk they are shouldering for relatively low compensation compared to other essential workers. Moreover, recourse for these individuals in terms of access to federal emergency income supports should they choose to be voluntarily absent from work is currently not an option.
  4. This suggests that strong consideration of additional or alternative support directed at and structured for these occupations would be valuable, as has been demonstrated by pay increases announced by certain private sector employers. As well, it would be valuable to consider measures that decrease exposure risk by enacting physical barriers/greater health protections for these essential workers.



For this study, we mapped the list of designated essential workplaces in Ontario to industries (NAICS) to understand (1) how many sales and service workers in Ontario are affected by the March 24 and April 3 provincial COVID-19 measures that allocate essential versus  non-essential occupations; (2) how potential COVID-19 exposure differs by occupation within this sector; and (3) how wage differences amplify the risk of exposure for low-income workers.

Our study found that nearly 70 percent of sales and service workers in Ontario, or one million people, have been deemed essential and that their degree of exposure varies by occupation. We found that there are more than 400,000 sales and service workers who have moderate disease exposure risk and work in high physical proximity to others. House cleaners and food service workers are particularly vulnerable due to prolonged exposure to surfaces that are hospitable to the virus.

Ontario’s sales and service worker population contains many part-time employees, as well as people over 60 and immigrants without citizenship or permanent residency. This suggests additional considerations in terms of more limited access to income and to public healthcare, as well as increased vulnerability in older workers. Plotting the median income level to the degree of physical proximity experienced by an essential service occupation is particularly revealing, as this shows more than half a million people are being asked to shoulder a burden of risk for what essentially amounts to minimum wage.

Such characteristics underscore the need to consider additional income supports and in particular physical protections for this essential service demographic. Enabling eligibility of these workers for all or part the Canada Emergency Response Benefit may also be an area of consideration. Areas for further study and investigation include a closer analysis of the demographic profiles of the most risky sales and service occupations based on disease exposure, proximity to other people and total number of people affected.

In a subsequent investigation, we will be examining the socioeconomic impacts associated with non-essential occupations in Ontario.


Media contact:
Lara Torvi


We would like to thank Andrew Agopsowicz, senior economist at the Royal Bank of Canada for reviewing an initial draft of this paper. We would also like to thank Evan Hennessy and Feifei Han for their support in producing the interactive data visualizations.

[1] Based on our mapping of Ontario’s essential workplaces to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).

[2] The data on exposure to disease and infection and physical proximity to others comes from the O*NET database. We mapped occupations from the Canada’s National Occupation Classification (NOC) system to O*NET occupations in order reconcile the occupational risk factors with information on employment and wages in Ontario.

[3] This data comes from Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, and was retrieved from the Government of Canada Job Bank’s Wage Report.