Layoffs in the tech sector — think Google, Amazon, Meta, and the like — from jobs once thought to be secure and prestigious are making headlines. I’ve been seeing an outpouring of media coverage, including support extended toward newly unemployed tech workers, judgments passed on tech leaders, practical suggestions of opportunities, and analyses of underlying causes and next steps.
As a senior epidemiologist recently laid off from working at governmental health departments, this attention makes me wistful (if not downright jealous). Thousands of layoffs have occurred in the public health sector over the past year with little support or fanfare. (Some aren’t calling what’s happening in public health “layoffs.” Whatever the term — “job expirations,” “failure to renew contracts,” “inability to honor commitments,” or the blunt “terminations” — the effect is still the same.)
After Congress failed to renew funding for public health protections in 2022, many public health professionals lost their jobs. That was hardly breaking news, since this job market has faced long-term disarray and neglect. For example, my cohort of more than 3,000 public health professionals was almost entirely laid off from the CDC Foundation after federal funding for Covid-19 dried up. Large teams of contact tracers and community health workers contributing to the Covid-19 emergency response within state and local health departments also lost their jobs when the money ran out before the pandemic did.
Having been through it myself, I understand the devastating impacts of job cuts on individuals and communities, and am genuinely glad to see the support for people affected by the tech layoffs. I’ve seen some compassionate and thoughtful suggestions, although there are probably also some performative acts of virtue signaling too. But I wish there had been similar support for public health workers, who received neither severance packages nor media attention.
The experiences of public health professionals seemed to be the polar opposite of tech workers in terms of pay, status, job security, and general razzamatazz, until the recent layoffs throughout the tech sector made me question whether these two groups of workers might have more in common than I had thought. However, the high-profile responses to the tech layoffs stand in contrast to the ways in which I and my public health colleagues have had to deal with our layoffs in shame and secrecy, and led me to consider further differences between us.
The most glaring difference between the two groups is in perceptions of job security: tech jobs were assumed to be well-funded and secure, so the layoffs came as a surprise to the workers and throughout the economy, and were independently newsworthy. Public health professionals, meanwhile, always knew, based on long and bitter experience, that our jobs were precarious and insecure. The public health sector had already found various ways to lose workers, including systematic devaluation, before finally shedding the latest cohorts at the end of fixed-term contracts. By 2022, when the end of funding for these public health jobs was the result of a political process, their loss was hardly shocking.
Another striking discrepancy between the tech and public health sectors: most people think they understand, and even value, the economic role tech companies play and the profit-driven motive for companies and individuals. But few understand the role of public health, which lately has been getting a bad rap. Public health professionals are assumed to be dedicated public servants working in governmental or nonprofit roles whose self-sacrifice is a chosen path.
I wonder if there might be more mutual support, sympathy, and even community among tech workers because they can readily identify as Xooglers or ex-Amazonians or former Meta workers, unified under the flag of their former companies. Public health workers are separated across hundreds of locations across the U.S. and siloed across professional groupings with no shared identity, voice, or built-in mechanism for communication.
Finally, it is abundantly clear to me that the long-term societal implications of the layoffs are in inverse proportion to their media coverage. There’s no question that the tech layoffs have been individually devastating for every employee affected and ripples will continue throughout the economy. The same can be said for the public health layoffs, but the consequences of the ripples will be far more serious due to deterioration of the public safety net and emergency preparedness.
Last November, the CDC released its much-vaunted new infrastructure funding of $3.2 billion, mostly from the American Rescue Plan, including an effort to boost the public health workforce. But it is uncertain if these funds will be used to create new budget lines for public health jobs, since decision-making is left to state and local governments and may be subject to political approval. Without any earmarks, guidance, or oversight requirements, it is unclear if this fixed-term funding can be used to create permanent jobs, or whether health departments will have to rely on temporary, contracting, or consulting roles — mechanisms that offer little or no job security and no institutional capacity building for employers.
Despite an analysis showing that U.S. state and local health departments lack 80,000 workers needed to provide a minimum set of services, it is far from evident how the new grant will be used to strengthen the public health workforce. Are state and local health departments permitted to use the new temporary funds to create budget lines for permanent roles, in order to sustain and develop the workforce in the long-term?
With the Biden administration’s recent announcement it will end the Covid-19 public health emergency in May, further public health layoffs are inevitable.
The public health workforce plays a vital role in society and needs long-term investment to develop career paths for essential jobs that directly affect community health and well-being, including reinforcing preventive care and emergency preparedness.
Responses to the tech sector layoffs offer an instructive lesson for how to support and redevelop the public health workforce. What if the same grace and compassion greeting the unemployed tech workers were to be extended to long-term job-seekers in public health? Can public health employers and institutions follow examples from the tech sector by publicly offering practical expressions of support? What if energies could be channeled into constructive suggestions, community building, and career development opportunities for laid-off public health professionals?
It is time for public health organizations to communicate better and louder about the gaping deficiencies in this sector and to nurture the growth of the public health workforce. That is, if they don’t want to lose us to the burgeoning health care tech market.
Katie D. Schenk is an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health informatics specialist based in Washington, D.C.
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