Essential but disposable: Latino workers bear brunt of labor inequality during pandemic

June 11, 2020 Center for Cooperative Media

By Kleibeel Marcano, Reporte Hispano

Editor’s note: This is the English translation of a story published by Reporte Hispano; you can see the original story in Spanish here.

NEW JERSEY — While thousands of Latino workers are risking their lives to feed families, take care of the elderly, clean homes, tend farmlands, or bring meals and toiletries to people’s doorstep, many of them are earning sub-minimum wages and working long hours without paid leave. 

Some of these workers don’t even have access to personal protective equipment (PPE), despite recommendations from health officials to wear masks and gloves during the coronavirus pandemic. Worse, if the workers fall ill, they don’t have medical insurance and proper healthcare.

“We are essential workers on the frontlines. But we are being treated as disposable people,” said Amanda Alvarado, who works at a supermarket in Edison, NJ.

At first, as the coronavirus unfolded in the state and the death toll continued to rise, Alvarado said her bosses did not take the public health crisis seriously. She and her co-workers repeatedly requested for face masks, gloves and other PPE—but none of them were provided.

“We had to bring our own face masks, especially the cashiers who are mostly in contact with customers,” said Alvarado, an immigrant from Mexico. 

Finally they were given the necessary protective gears, she added, only after Gov. Phil Murphy declared that face masks and gloves are required to all essential workers.

“Our employer also did not tell us about the health status of our co-workers. Later on, we found out on Facebook that several of our colleagues had contracted COVID-19,” she said. “Our employer sent them home and told them to apply for disability insurance, even if they (employer) knew that the workers are not eligible because they are undocumented immigrants.”

For 14 years that she has lived in the United States, Alvarado said the current pandemic puts her in a nearly impossible situation to decide between staying at home but not having an income and going to work but putting herself and her children’s health at risk. 

Alvarado has been the family’s sole breadwinner. Her husband got laid off, after the restaurant where he used to work had closed down since March.

A recent PEW Research Center survey shows that 48 percent of Hispanic adults either have jobs that require frequent contact with others or live with someone whose job requires them to have frequent contact with other people. 

“It’s scary to work under these conditions, particularly now that more businesses are reopening and more people are out on the street,” she said. “Last week, my husband’s uncle, who lived in Passaic, NJ, died from COVID-19 complications. It was very fast: he was taken to the hospital and two days later, he died. I’m scared, but I can’t lose my jobmy income supports my family.”

“Many [Latino workers] do not have job security and hold jobs that are more at risk [because of COVID-19], as compared to those of other racial groups,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Global Migration.

Al-Jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, concurred.

“Many of these workers have had to work without protective equipment, without access to the COVID-19 tests, without insurance, and with an average annual salary of $16,000,” Poo said. “Paying the bills and covering the expenses was already a challenge before the crisis. Now the situation of these workers has worsened.”

On May 8, the Department of Labor announced that the unemployment rate among Latinos is at 18.9 percent, or one in four Latino workers is currently out of work. 

“Being an ‘essential’ worker is an empty label. They (government officials, employers and other stakeholders) just want us to work, sacrifice and risk our lives, but they want us to remain silent about our job instability and the danger that we face everyday,” Alvarado said.

No support from employers

For 16 years, Norma Morales has been a regular house cleaner for four different families in Lakewood, NJ. Since she moved to the United States from Mexico 21 years ago, cleaning houses has supported herself and her family.

In late March, Morales contracted the coronavirus. To her dismay, none of the four families had offered her paid sick leave or any financial assistance.

“No work, no pay—that’s what all my bosses told me,” said Morales, a single mother of two young daughters.

With no source of income, no health insurance and no government assistance because of her immigration status, she feels alone and non-existent. 

“It bothers me that they describe me as essential. But they do not give us any support, neither the bosses nor the government and the state,” said Morales. “They need our work, but we do not exist at the time of aid. We are essential when it suits them.”

After five weeks of being under home quarantine with her daughters, Morales survived the virus.

“I had all the symptoms: cough, fever, body aches, loss of smell, and shortness of breath. But I didn’t go to the hospital because I don’t have health insuranceand I was afraid to go. So, I just did all the home remedies that people told me on WhatsApp until I got better,” she said.

Morales, who used to work 12 hours a day, has reduced her work hours to regain more strength.

“I hope that I can work more hours soon, because I have to pay all my debts and expenses,” she said.

Essential workers as forced laborers

Candido Osorio, a construction worker in New Brunswick, NJ, said he has been forced to go out and work during the pandemic. 

“The system forces you: if you don’t work, you don’t eat in this country. There is no help,” Osorio said.  The label ‘essential worker’ seems offensive. All workers are essential; nobody is better. We are all equal and we have families to support.”

Osorio, his wife and their four children depend on his income.

In mid March, he and his fellow workers at a small construction company went on strike, demanding their employer to provide personal protective equipment (PPE).

“When the pandemic broke out, we had to work normally, as if nothing was happening. But as the number of cases and deaths increased, we all went on strike. We went two weeks without working or collecting a penny, until the boss called us all and promised to give us protective equipment,” Osorio said.

But despite having PPE, the fear of contracting the coronavirus has been prevalent. One of his coworkers got tested positive for COVID-19 and was suspended without pay.

“Since he was not allowed to work for four weeks, he decided to look for another job even though he was sick,” Osorio said. “He told us that he and his family couldn’t survive without an income. It’s scary because he could spread the virus to others.” 

The coronavirus had also hit closer to his home, he added, as five of his relatives were infected by COVID-19 and were hospitalized.  

The poll conducted by Ipsos shows that Latinos (26 percent) and African-Americans (30 percent) are three times more likely than whites (10 percent) to personally know someone who died from COVID-19.

Natividad Valverde, who works for a warehouse in Somerset, NJ, said her employer did not shut down its operation, even though two workers were tested positive for COVID-19.

Considered as essential, with workers making plastic boxes and container lids for disinfectants, Valverde said she and co-workers continued to work long hours in the wake of the coronavirus.

Then, she was tested positive for COVID-19.

“We are essential workers. But we are also forced laborers. Many employers do not care if we get sick, if we cannot pay the bills, or if we are deportedit is not their problem,” Valverde said.

This story was produced as part of a four-month COVID-19 reporting fellowship with NJ ethnic and community media organized by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

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