Sex Workers and COVID-19 Vaccine Eligibility in Washington State

As COIVD-19 vaccines become available in limited supply, it is essential that we prioritize people who are especially at risk for acquiring or spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, for vaccination. We believe that sex workers and people in the sex trade are at an elevated risk for contracting coronavirus because many of us continue to work, usually indoors, in cars, or other closed locations, often without the benefit of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), with members of the public.

Washington State Department of Health recognizes this. In COVID-19 Vaccine Prioritization Guidance and Interim Allocation Framework published on January 20, 2021, sex workers are listed among workers in various areas who “are at high risk.”

People working in jails and prisons, health workers, front line workers, pharmacists, restaurant and grocery workers, utility workers, critical infrastructure workers, contact tracing professionals, public transport workers, volunteer firefighters, people who work in hospitals, parks and recreation staff, hatchery staff, long-term care workers, farmworkers, sex workers, veterinarians and veterinary staff are at increased risk. Child care workers, school staff and nurses, teachers, and workers who leave their children in congregate child care, and other workers that are exposed to people or work in settings where proper safety precautions aren’t taken are at high risk. [Note: emphasis added]

It also states:

Sex workers are at risk when seeing clients, which disproportionately impacts queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.

However, that has not translated to putting sex workers on the State’s current COVID-19 vaccination roadmap.

Vaccine Phases in WA

As of today, State of Washington is vaccinating people who fall under categories 1A (workers in health care setting, first responders, long-term care facility residents) and 1B tier 1 (people 65 or older, people who are 50 and older and live in multigenerational households). As more people in these categories are vaccinated and vaccine availability continue to grow, people in the rest of 1B categories and beyond will become eligible.

None of the categories that have been established so far appears to cover sex workers as a whole, though individual sex workers may already qualify under 1A or 1B1 classification or become eligible under other categories soon. For example, sex workers who are also health care workers or sex workers who are older would already qualify. Some sex workers doing harm reduction public health outreach (street outreach, needle exchange, etc.) to other sex workers have received vaccination as health care workers, which includes everyone who works at health care settings, not just doctors and nurses, and includes volunteers as well as employees.

Some sex workers consider themselves health are workers similar to massage therapists and counselors. The government will not say that this is the case, but it has not stated that sex workers are not health care workers either–and that is a good thing. Everyone has to make their own judgment as to whether or not they qualify and answer questions honestly on Washington State’s Phase Finder to self-certify their eligibility and then sign up for an appointment. Completing the Phase Finder will lead to a screen you can use as a proof of eligibility, and none of the people we know who have already received the vaccine said that their eligibility was ever questioned or verified by someone else (although your mileage may vary–please let us know if you experience any problems).

Dangerous environment sex workers and people in the sex trade operate under is not inevitable. When the pandemic hit, front-line essential workers continue to work with PPEs while others began working remotely or took generous unemployment insurance to stay home, watch Netflix and bake banana bread. But none of these options were realistic for many sex workers: masks and other PPEs baffled clients (they have hard enough time agreeing to condoms) and doing remote sex work (i.e. camming) isn’t for everybody nor is it realistic when you have kids doing schoolwork from home.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) was designed to provide benefits to gig economy workers, self-employed individuals, and those who work as independent contractors for the first time. Many sex workers fit under these categories, but found it virtually impossible to receive financial support as it was difficult to prove lost income and meet other requirements. Dancers whose work is completely legal and could produce records of paying house fees (money charged by the clubs to dancers to “rent” the stage) had a slightly better luck accessing PUA, but also faced denials and unconscionably low benefit amount.

Sex workers are also categorically excluded from Small Business Administration loan programs that were created to support small businesses, independent contractors, and self-employed folks because services they provide is of “prurient sexual nature.” These explicit and implicit exclusions in the nation’s pandemic relief efforts are what left many sex workers and people in the sex trade without any option other than continuing to work during the pandemic at great risk to themselves, their families, and everyone else.

We will continue to monitor what happens in the vaccine rollout. Please share your experiences with receiving or not receiving vaccines and how you are working to reduce risks at work.

(Thx to Justice from Reframe Health and Justice for bringing us in to this conversation.)

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