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The Razor’s Edge of “Essential” Labor in Food and Agriculture

AAEA members release new research in AEPP special issue on COVID-19

More than half of the states in the country are experiencing increases in their case numbers – our article sheds some light on how policymakers might use economics to consider the tradeoffs created by this “razor’s edge.” A new article released in the Applied Economic Perspectives & Policy’s Special issue on COVID-19, economists identify ways to improve the equity and efficiency of the essential labor distinction, and to consider potential ways to look beyond “essentialness” for future economic policy responses to the Pandemic.

Trey Malone, K. Aleks Schaefer, and Felicia Wu from Michigan State University worked together on their new article “The Razor’s Edge of ‘Essential’ Labor in Food and Agriculture.”

Malone says, “The connotation of “essential” is uniquely problematic, particularly given the linkages between viral disease with anxiety and depression. For any employee or business owner, their occupation is, by definition, essential to them. One could easily synonymize “nonessential” with “unimportant.”  At a minimum, by designating what businesses are and are not considered essential, governing bodies have the potential to risk the well‐being of “nonessential” laborers and business owners. That is, how might business owners feel if their government tells them that their business is not considered important enough to merit the designation? Yet those who are designated "essential" workers are forced to face increased risk of contracting disease, with what may feel like a moral obligation because of their public designation as essential. Combined with heterogeneous trust in public officials and information sources, these important behavioral questions are likely to challenge compliance with any essentiality spectrum.”

If you are interested in setting up an interview, please contact Allison Ware in the AAEA Business Office.

ABOUT AAEA: Established in 1910, the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA) is the leading professional association for agricultural and applied economists, with 2,500 members in more than 60 countries. Members of the AAEA work in academic or government institutions as well as in industry and not-for-profit organizations, and engage in a variety of research, teaching, and outreach activities in the areas of agriculture, the environment, food, health, and international development. The AAEA publishes two journals, the American Journal of Agricultural Economics and Applied Economic Perspectives & Policy, as well as the online magazine Choices and the online open access publication series Applied Economics Teaching Resources. To learn more, visit

Contact: Allison Ware
Senior Communications Manager
(414) 918-3190