Lourdes Padilla is among those who worries about what’s in store for workers like her who can’t work from home. “Of course, I’m tired of the mask,” said Padilla, 39, wearing a blue surgical mask while waiting for a bus that would take her home from her job as a checkout clerk at an El Monte discount store. “I mean, no one looks forward to wearing it, but I have three children who depend on me. I can’t take any chances. My neighbor next door lost her mom and her sister to coronavirus in the past year. My kids are scared for me.”
Statistics show the fear is valid.
“In a lot of low-wage industries, workers won’t report any workplace abuses. Retaliation is rampant.”
~ Alejandra Domenzain, program coordinator, Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley
As a Latina in a lower-wage industry, Padilla is part of a demographic that has suffered a disproportionate number of deaths and extent of financial losses during the pandemic.
Latinos, Native Americans, and Black people are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis released at the end of February. The figures also show that these same groups are at greater risk of infection and hospitalization, which obviously affects their ability to work.
“In a lot of low-wage industries, workers won’t report any workplace abuses. Retaliation is rampant. Their hours could get cut or they could get fired,” says Alejandra Domenzain, program coordinator at the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley.
One of the most encouraging features of President Biden’s revised COVID-19 plan that could help lower-wage workers is the “Test to Treat” initiative, which would allow people to get tested and receive antiviral pills on the spot if they test positive. It could help lower-wage workers who are at higher risk, but only if testing sites are easily accessible and truly free.
“We will be smarter than ever before, using the lessons of the last two years,” the plan states.
The SMARTER plan acknowledges the challenges of achieving more equitable outcomes for communities that have borne the brunt of the pandemic. In addition to noting the disproportionate number of deaths, the blueprint notes that the rate of infection for communities with a median income of less than $40,000 is 24% higher than the statewide average.
In L.A. County, 42% of more than 400 workers surveyed by the UCLA Labor Center reported that their employer rarely notified them if they’d been exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace.
“There are some communities, mainly underserved, low-income communities of color as well as older and disabled Californians, that have been more disproportionately impacted,” the document states. “Much more work is required to tackle these disparities.”
State officials have responded by funneling $17.3 million to more than 110 community-based organizations across California in an effort announced in Feb. 2021. These groups have sent Spanish-speaking community health workers known as “promotoras” into communities at high risk for COVID-19, going door to door at times, dispensing information. Some have set up mobile clinics staffed by bilingual workers. And others have provided workplace safety training. Most importantly, they’ve guided people toward clinics where they can get vaccinated, which dramatically reduces the possibility of hospitalization in case of infection.
Jorge Renteria, who sells flowers on a busy industrial street near a Home Depot in Corona, began masking up regularly after a visit from a promotora last year. “She explained where I could go get my shot for free,” Renteria says. “I work for myself, so no one is telling me what to do, but I decided to protect myself. So far so good.”
These community organizations have helped disseminate important information at a critical point in the pandemic. Moving forward, however, the state’s SMARTER blueprint doesn’t offer any concrete steps to minimize the inequities that it documents.
Instead, the plan removes one clear protective measure.
With the new state rules making masks voluntary, employees are effectively on their own if their employer decides to ditch masking.
From now on, it merely suggests masks for those who are unvaccinated. Employees are still required to wear a mask in areas with the possibility of high transmission such as public transit, emergency shelters, health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and long-term care facilities.
However, workers in retail, manufacturing, and other indoor businesses where employees work in tight quarters may still be at high risk depending on workplace conditions. For example, fast-food employees are at higher risk of getting infected. In Los Angeles County, 42% of more than 400 workers surveyed by the UCLA Labor Center reported that their employer rarely notified them if they’d been exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace. Further, nearly half said they didn’t have sick leave if they or a co-worker got infected.
With the new state rules making masks voluntary, employees are effectively on their own if their employer decides to ditch masking as a protective measure. “This change from mandates to the SMARTER system is putting the burden back into the hands of workers,” said Laura Stock, director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley.
These workers, who tend to be lower-wage and people of color, are often not in a position to advocate for themselves. These are workers who tend to lack such benefits as paid sick leave or health insurance. Worker abuse can also be rampant.
“I think in some cases there’s been tremendous progress,” Stock says. “But in some instances, some of the same barriers to protection continue to exist.”
Indeed, Cal/OSHA has logged 1,143 COVID-19 related violations from Aug. 20, 2020, to February. Many are serious violations.
And what about complaints that Cal/OSHA is unable to investigate? The department has been understaffed, with 18% of its workforce vacant at the end of January. In loosening mandates, federal and state officials note dramatic declines in case rates.
Many of us have learned that the best way to move beyond this public health crisis is to do what we can to protect those who are more vulnerable.
In two years, we’ve learned that masks, social distancing, and vaccinations have helped reduce COVID-19 infections.
“I personally will continue to wear a mask in most indoor public settings, and I urge all Americans to consider doing the same,” Dr. Gerald E. Harmon, president of the American Medical Association, said in a Feb. 25 statement. “Although masks may no longer be required indoors in many parts of the U.S., we know that wearing a well-fitted mask is an effective way to protect ourselves and our communities.”
More to the point, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview, “If you want to be protected from infection, even if you’re boosted, I would say you’ve got to wear your mask.”
However, she caused a ripple on Twitter after she belittled masking during that same podcast. “I just know people are tired and the Scarlet Letter of this pandemic is the mask,” Walensky said during the Feb. 21 episode of In the Bubble With Andy Slavitt. “It may be painless. It may be easy, but it’s inconvenient.”
Such mixed messaging, especially from such a high-level government official, doesn’t inspire confidence. If anything, many of us have learned that the best way to move beyond this public health crisis is to do what we can to protect those who are more vulnerable.
It’s the kind of thinking that guided Los Angeles script coordinator Ana Lydia Ochoa-Monaco during an incident at a Michael’s craft store in Los Angeles. She was picking up paint and brushes at the front of the store when she overheard a woman yelling at a young Black employee.
“‘You can’t tell me what to do!’ ‘You’re violating my rights!’ I think when she said, ‘You’re a Nazi’ is when she caught my attention,” Ochoa-Monaco said. “I told her, ‘Don’t talk to her that way. She’s literally just doing her job.’”
The woman followed Ochoa-Monaco and the employee around the store, saying that “we didn’t belong in the U.S.” Ochoa-Monaco, who is 5 feet, 9 inches tall and a former retail worker herself, said she felt a duty to protect the employee.
“I think we’re better equipped than we were a year ago to respond to these kinds of situations. I’m not saying this is going to stop racism. I’m not like the superwoman of the streets, but I would hope that if other people are in this situation that they would speak up,” Ochoa-Monaco said.
“I mean, can you imagine you’re making minimum wage and you have to go through something like this?”
At least without masking requirements, workers at eateries and retailers will no longer have to act as the “mask police.” However, these essential workers who kept us going in our darkest hours of the pandemic will now have to be even more vigilant about protecting themselves.
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