The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout have hammered the Latino community.
Latinos make up 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths after adjusting for age, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but only 19 percent of the population. This is the biggest disparity of any major ethnic or racial group.
Why the disproportionate impact? The reason is work.
Latinos are highly overrepresented in “low-wage hazardous jobs,” said Jessica Martinez, co- director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), and in “essential jobs that continue to work despite the peaks in COVID.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Latinos represent 18 percent of the working population, but 35 percent of the workforce in slaughterhouses and 23 percent in seafood processing.
“Sixty or 70 percent of Latino workers don’t have the chance to do teleworking,” said Jorge Mújica, an organizer at the worker center Arise Chicago. “They have to show up to the factory or the warehouse.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly half of non-Latino white workers are able to telework.
“So you get 25 workers getting sick in the workplace, and then they get 25 family members sick.”
Meatpacking and poultry plants have been particular hotspots for outbreaks of COVID. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), at least 49,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID.
“The companies were not providing any personal protective equipment,” said Magaly Licolli, who organizes poultry workers with the Arkansas-based group Venceremos. “Social distancing was almost impossible because of the way that these plants are structured—workers work shoulder to shoulder.”
At the same time that many Latino workers were forced to continue to work in cramped conditions, many others were being laid off. As the pandemic’s effects set in, the unemployment gap between white and Latino workers tripled, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Latinos work disproportionately in restaurants, hotels, and construction.
As a result, according to Pew Research, 59 percent of Latinos reported that their households suffered lost wages or jobs, compared to 43 percent of the overall population. The study was conducted in May.
NOT IN A VACUUM
COVID intensified the damage of “decades of structural and strategic racism,” said Martinez. “We are seeing the impact of long-term discriminatory practices in health care, employment, housing, and education.”
Latinos are more likely to be uninsured and undocumented. That means it’s harder to get treatment for COVID symptoms—and harder to get the economic relief that they disproportionately need.
For example, the checks sent out to individual taxpayers by the government were sent only to those who were documented. Even those who were part of married couples where one partner is undocumented were deemed ineligible, except for military households.
At work it is no different. Working at a poultry plant is extraordinarily dangerous. The line moves fast, repetitive motions often cause carpal tunnel syndrome, and workers handle chemicals whose long-term health effects are unknown, with little oversight from the government. Typically the plants are built in isolated rural spots, where workers have little recourse against intimidation on the job or discrimination in town.
SIXTY CHICAGO STRIKES
With the support of groups like Arise Chicago and Venceremos, Latino workers are fighting back against dangerous work conditions during the pandemic.
Mújica says that in the early days of the pandemic, his group was receiving between 80 and 100 calls and messages a day from workers seeking help because they had sick co-workers or even co-workers who had already died. Arise Chicago launched a campaign to assist workers to strike to defend their health.
They produced letters for workers to present to their employers, saying, “I’m sorry, but since you are so irresponsible, we are taking matters in our own hands. And we are going into quarantine,” Mújica said. Around 60 groups of workers went out on strike through this process, mostly in April and May.
Subsequently, as pandemic conditions eased, Arise Chicago produced video workshops on Facebook addressing questions about a safe return to work that have received over 380,000 views.
The group is also helping workers to form unions.
CALL THEM UP
Licolli said she was forced to turn away from in-person communication because of the pandemic and had to rely on phone calls to organize poultry workers. She made calls to workers, dividing them up by company and plant.
“Workers were terrified” to speak up against management, “but also afraid of losing their lives,” said Licolli.
Through this process she helped workers identify their needs, like social distancing at work and personal protective equipment, and map their workplaces to identify leaders who could help organize. From there, Licolli and the workers created a petition that received 300 worker signatures. The group set up public rallies to draw attention to the poultry plant conditions and began attracting national media attention. Workers gathered videos from inside and gave testimonies to the media.
So far, workers at Tyson Foods, an Arkansas-based multinational food company, have received daily surgical masks, more sanitation stations, and two additional $500 bonuses if workers were able to meet attendance requirements. They have fallen short, however, of winning paid sick leave, which was one of their top demands, and the surge in COVID cases is making it difficult to continue having public events.
DRIVERS’ LICENSES FOR ALL
In Massachusetts, immigrant workers have continued to push for a key pre-pandemic demand, despite the new obstacles to organizing: driver’s licenses for all. In July, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and the undocumented-led Movimiento Cosecha (Harvest Movement) led an occupation at the steps of the Massachusetts capital for 13 days.
Undocumented workers have been demanding driver’s licenses for years because they need to travel long distances within the state to get to and from work. A single arrest due to racial profiling or a minor traffic offense can lead to detention and deportation.
One alternative to driving yourself is to carpool—often with a management rep driving, for an exorbitant fee, as frequently happens in farm work. This was uncomfortable and unsafe before—but as Andrea Schmid of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center points out, in a pandemic it’s also yet another health risk.