Contact Tracing: The Rising Role of the Pandemic?

Pandemics not only destroy jobs but they also create them, and perhaps no job demonstrates that for the coronavirus crisis as much as the sudden surge of interest in “contact tracers.”

Contact tracing is the public health technique of identifying and contacting the people who may have been near an infected person so that they, too, can be tested and treated if necessary. This isn’t a new technique and is used every day by public health departments dealing with diseases like tuberculosis, measles, sexually transmitted diseases, and others.

States have said they want to ramp up contact tracing, with New York State alone reportedly set to hire thousands of contact tracers and Johns Hopkins offering a six-hour online course. No one expects these to be long-term jobs, but can they give laid-off workers a way to stay afloat in the short term?

Early job postings examined by Burning Glass Technologies show these jobs paying between $17 and $22 per hour, which is above the generally accepted “living wage” of $15 per hour.  Most of these postings seem to be work-from-home jobs that require workers to have their own phone and Internet connections to reach out to possible contacts. In these cases, workers will be provided with a script of interview questions and quarantine requirements and won’t be allowed to deviate from it.

Many of the skills in these early postings are not unlike those asked of Customer Service Representatives: interpersonal skills, organizational skills, computer literacy, CRM skills, and the ability to show empathy to distressed individuals. At least some of these postings only ask for a high school diploma and do not ask for specialized health knowledge.

That gives these roles a different profile from Community Health Workers, the role that handles contact tracing in more normal times. Those roles usually require a bachelor’s degree along with foreign language skills, knowledge of mental health, and crisis counseling. Contact tracing is only one of the tasks of a Community Health Worker, who normally makes on-site visits, conducts screenings, and deals with multi-ethnic communities.

Will contact tracing jobs give people skills and training to position them for health care roles? Based on the limited information available, the case management and communication skills involved could overlap with roles like Social and Human Service Assistants, although the tracers will probably not get in-depth health training. But they do provide a strong basis to be a short-term option for displaced Customer Service Representatives, or to provide people without customer service experience the skills to move into that field after the pandemic.