When Olga Partida’s mother got called into her seasonal job at a food processing plant in mid-May while coronavirus cases in California were in a lull, Partida said she hesitated for a moment, but ultimately decided to take a risk.
“A lot of people didn’t want to go to work because they were scared, but she said, ‘It’s fine, I’ll go to work, it’s only two weeks,’” Partida said. She said other workers had expressed concern because social distancing was hard at processing facilities, but her mother took the job because it was for a short stint and because she needed the money. “But almost at the end of the two weeks, she started feeling sick.”
She said her mother, who did not want to be identified for fear of repercussions, continued to work at her job for four days while she had a fever. Eventually, she became so sick her family had to take her to the hospital.
Partida said her mother isn’t the kind of person who felt like she could take a day off, especially when the type of work she’s in is so temporary.
“She started with a fever, she was fatigued and she continued to work like that, she was scared, she didn’t want to get in trouble at work,” she said. “It’s her work ethic, she doesn’t want to miss a day of work, she’s been like that all her life. It’s more like a responsibility, like, ‘No, this is my job, I need to go and work.”
Partida’s mother lives with three other family members, and the rest of the household also contracted COVID-19 since she got sick, though not as badly.
Latinos Have A ‘Double Burden’
Her story is one that is easily reflected back in coronavirus statistics Sacramento county is now reporting. According to county data, Latinos and African Americans make up over a third of the coronavirus cases in Sacramento, though they are just under a quarter of the region’s population. Additionally, other statistics show that Latinos and African Americans are much less likely to be able to work from home than their White or Asian counterparts.
In a CapRadio/Valley Vision poll, many of the results show high rates of anxiety, depression and financial distress for African Americans and Latinos.
Just 12% of African American respondents said they were “not at all concerned” about contracting COVID-19 while working. This, as compared to over a third of White and Asian respondents who answered the same question.
Also, 47% of respondents who identify as Hispanic or Latino said they “Could not comfortably/Barely could afford” to pay their rent or mortgage, and 40% said they were “very concerned” about their job security. The majority said they were feeling stress and anxiety during the pandemic at least once a week.
For African Americans, 90% reported feeling stress or anxiety, and 62% also said their income had been somewhat or significantly reduced. (Note: Poll respondents could identify as being both Hispanic or Latino and a race such as Asian, Black or white.)
Seciah Aquino, director of the Latino Center for a Healthy California said in some ways, the poll results are not a surprise.
“We’re actually looking at a double burden for the Latino community in that Latinos are not only over-represented in the number of cases and deaths, but also the hardest hit by unemployment,” she said. She added that the higher rates of COVID-19 cases in Blacks and Latinos is a result of a larger system.
“The pandemic is actually playing out exactly playing out exactly how we would expect it to play out,” Aquino said. “Everything from our race to class, zip code, age, disability, even immigration status are all predictors of health disparities.”
Worrying About COVID-19 Every Day
Alfred Louis Walker II is an African American worker at a casino near Sacramento. He’s also concerned about his risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job.
“You worry every day, the casino is a petri dish,” Walker said. He said most of his colleagues working on the casino floor were Latino, Asian or Black. “The people demanding that we reopen were not the people that were going to be working in the places that opened. That’s the definition of slavery, they wanted these people to come in and work these fields so they didn’t have to.”
Dante Butler is African American and works as a security guard. He says his job is high-contact, because most of his time is spent interfacing with people who come into the building he works at, or asking others to put a mask on. He says sometimes this means close face-to-face interfacing with others.
“The company I work for, they did email us about PPE [personal protective equipment] and getting some, but we personally haven’t received any yet,” he said. Butler has gone ahead and ordered masks and gloves for himself to wear.
“When I know that I have to go in and deal with people at work no matter what, that means that when I have any type of little tickle in my throat or if I sneeze from pollen, I have to wonder, am I taking something home to my family?”
‘They Want To Feel Secure At Their Work’
The need to have certain people continue working through the pandemic is especially stark when it comes to the state’s migrant farmworkers — a job sector that has recently seen a spike in COVID-19 cases in relation to harvest seasons. When the pandemic began in March, that was the start of many of their working seasons.
Juanita Ontiveros with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation said farmworkers have been caught in a bind between prioritizing their health or their financial security.
“When they come, they’re ready to report for work because they’re coming with empty pockets. And so that’s what was happening this year, they came ready to report for work and boom,” she said. “The farmworkers were declared essential workers, and they say it’s a pretty word, but you can’t do too much with that. They want protection, more than anything, they want to feel secure at their work.”
She added that during harvest seasons now, many workers work in fields where social distancing isn’t enforced, and where basic cleanliness standards aren’t adhered to, like having clean water or fresh cups to drink the water from. Many also share worker housing with family members who aren’t working, which can exacerbate spread.
Additionally, research from the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA showed that 30% of Latinos did not have health insurance, compared to 10% to 15% for other racial or ethnic groups.
“Least likely to have insurance, most likely to speak Spanish, almost 100% immigrant, 70% undocumented,” David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center said of the state’s migrant farmworkers. “Farmworkers, the people who grow the food that we eat, they’re in these public exposure situations that made it possible for the wealthier communities to shelter in place.”
A more recent report by Hayes-Bautista showed that the number of COVID-19 cases for African Americans and Latinos has increased more rapidly between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July than any other racial group. For Latinos in particular, their rates of contracting COVID-19 increased by 150% during this time.
Denise Herd, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health said the outcomes that are being seen now for African American and Latino workers aren’t new, but simply revealing how much change needs to happen.
“The issue is there have been just huge gaps in health that have disproportionately affected ethnic minorities, so the fact that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color and disadvantaged populations, it’s not news to folks that have been looking at these disparities for many years,” Herd said. “There are layers of risk that they’re already experiencing and the pandemic is just another case of being hard hit by these health problems.”
Editor’s note: The poll was a partnership between CapRadio and Valley Vision, and administered by Sacramento State’s Institute for Social Research.