The price of being ‘essential’: Latino service workers bear brunt of coronavirus
LOS ANGELES — For Lupe Martinez, who does the laundry at a Riverside nursing home, each day presented an agonizing choice: Go to work and risk getting the novel coronavirus or lose the $13.58-an-hour paycheck her family relies upon.
Martinez went to work.
Even after the masks started running low. Even, she said, after a patient whose room she had entered without protective equipment fell ill and was put into isolation.
Martinez, 62, tested positive for COVID-19 last month, followed by her 60-year-old husband, who had to stop working after having a heart attack last year. Her adult son and daughter, who live with them, also tested positive.
“There were many times I didn’t want to go to work,” said Martinez, coughing heavily as she spoke. “I didn’t want to get sick. My husband said, ‘Don’t.’ I said we can’t live. We have these bills. … I had to push myself to go. I had a commitment to my family.”
For low-paid employees whose work is rarely if ever glorified — the people who clean the floors, do the laundry, serve fast food, pick the crops, work in the meat plants — having the jobs that keep America running has come with a heavy price. By the odd calculus wrought by the viral outbreak, they have been deemed “essential.” And that means being a target.
Along with blacks, Latinos have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in California and other parts of the United States, becoming infected and dying at disproportionately high rates relative to their share of the population. Health experts say one of the main reasons Latinos are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 is because many work in low-paying jobs that require them to leave home and interact with the public.
Latinos comprise about 40% of California’s population but 53% of positive cases, according to state data. In San Francisco, Latinos comprise 15% of the population but make up 43% of the confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Saturday.
University of California, San Francisco researchers tested thousands of people in the city’s Mission District for COVID-19. While Latinos made up 44% of the people tested, they accounted for more than 95% of the positive cases. About 90% of those who tested positive said they were unable to work from home.
A Los Angeles Times data analysis last month also found that younger Latinos and blacks were dying at disproportionately high rates, belying the conventional wisdom that old age is the primary risk factor for death.
Latinos in California are significantly less likely than whites, Asians and blacks to say that working from home amid the pandemic is an option, according to a new poll of California voters from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.
Some 42% of Latinos polled said they could work from home, compared with 53% of blacks, 59% of Asians and 61% of whites. The poll also showed that Latinos were nearly three times more likely than whites to be concerned about their jobs placing them in close proximity to others. This was a particular problem in the first weeks of the pandemic, when masks and other protective gear were in shorter supply and many businesses were still trying to implement social distancing policies.
“They feel essential; they’re trying to do their part to get us out of this crisis,” said Jose Lopez, a Los Angeles-based spokesman for the Food Chain Workers Alliance. “Yet we can’t provide face masks. We can’t give them the space to give them six feet of separation between their co-workers.”