Latino Essential Workers Remain on the Front Lines of the Battle Against COVID-19, and Conditions Worsen

Latinos Essential Workers BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of BELatina.

It is curious to see how the rhetoric and political narrative change with each passing year — especially during a pandemic.

After being lauded and internationally recognized for their tireless work during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, just last week, New York’s new mayor, Eric Adams, called essential workers “unskilled” to sit in the corner office.

According to the Business Insider, on his second day as mayor of New York City, Eric Adams appealed to office-based businesses: He pushed for companies to demand their office workers return to offices sooner than a proposed April timeline.

“You are part of the ecosystem of this city,” he said. “My low-skill workers — my cooks, my dishwashers, my messengers, my shoeshine people, those that work in Dunkin’ Donuts — they don’t have the academic skills to sit in the corner office. They need this.”

Adams’ misrepresentation of a vast portion of the labor force — called “essential” during the pandemic — drew the ire and retaliation of millions on social media.

The new mayor of New York was disqualifying 80% of the American workforce, according to figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With Hispanics driving labor force growth in the U.S., this implies that a large percentage of the community is also on the front lines of the new wave of COVID-19 cases.

And public officials, fearing a new pandemic-related economic shutdown, are insisting that essential workers return to the workplace “to keep society running smoothly,” as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top COVID-19 advisor, told CNN on Dec. 27.

These strategies to address the pandemic imply that a large portion of Latino essential workers faces increased health risks during the pandemic.

For example, according to a recent report released by the UCLA Labor Center, fast food workers in Los Angeles County are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, in addition to facing difficult working conditions that were exacerbated during the pandemic.

The UCLA report is the first to provide an in-depth portrait of COVID-19 safety compliance through the lens of fast-food workers themselves, who, despite working on the front lines, do not receive the workplace protections to which they are entitled by law.

Nearly a quarter of fast-food workers contracted COVID-19 in the past eighteen months, and less than half were notified by their employers after being exposed to COVID-19.

“More than half of workers felt that employers didn’t address their needs after they spoke up, and some even faced retaliation for doing so,” said Tia Koonse, report author and Legal and Policy Research Manager at the UCLA Labor Center. “COVID-19 safety protocols like paid sick leave reduce the incidence of frontline food service employees working while they are sick, but these measures have been insufficient in this sector. Only 47% of fast-food workers received paid sick leave when they or their coworkers contracted the virus.”

According to the study, labor standards violations in fast-food restaurants have increased and worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly two-thirds of workers have experienced wage theft, and more than half have faced health and safety hazards on the job, resulting in injuries to 43% of workers.

It seems then that the eponym of “essentials” has been diluted in the new needs of the ruling class, and “unskilled” workers remain the cannon fodder.