Work-based Risks to Latino Workers and their Families From COVID-19

By and ·May 26, 2020
Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy

The Issue:

The public health emergency brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is putting front and center the health and safety risks that many workers face on a daily basis. Perhaps most salient, some traditionally low-risk occupations like grocery store cashiers are now the workers facing some of the highest risks of contracting COVID-19. More under the radar, the pandemic is exposing and exacerbating the hazards present in low-wage jobs in sectors that were already highly risky. Hispanic workers, both immigrants and native-born, are disproportionately likely to be working in these industries and occupations exposed to greater degrees of health and safety hazards. Despite these higher risks, however, recent research indicates that these workers are less likely to file complaints regarding illegal or hazardous conditions, and thus less likely to benefit from legal protections through regulations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. What are the challenges Hispanic workers face to access safe and healthy workplaces? And how is this likely to ripple through to their families in the context of COVID-19?

Hispanic workers fill many low-wage essential jobs and face added challenges by having low bargaining power to advocate for safer work conditions.

The Facts:

  • Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hispanic workers were especially likely to face health and safety risks at work. The five industries in which the largest share of the workforce was Hispanic in 2018, and employed more than 500,000 workers, included landscaping, animal slaughtering and processing, crop production, “services buildings and dwellings” (i.e. housekeeping), and warehousing and storage, according to the Current Population Survey. Each of these industries had higher incidence rates of occupational injuries and illnesses than the national average (see here). In several of these cases COVID-19 has magnified the risks. Animal Slaughtering and Processing — a sector characterized by severe occupational hazards and rates of over twice the national average on injuries that require days away from work — are now the epicenter of some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks. Crop and farm workers face new COVID-19-related risks stemming from the fact that they often live in crowded housing and still commute in crowded buses and vans, leading them unprotected from exposure (see here and here). Warehouse workers have faced their own increased risks as facilities and the pace of work present challenges to sanitation and maintaining social distancing (see here and here). 
  • Hispanic low-wage workers are less likely to be in consumer-facing sectors. Jobs that typically employ Hispanic low-wage workers provide fewer opportunities and outlets for workers to use bargaining chips to demand for change. Whereas workers at Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, and other consumer-facing sectors have staged highly-publicized walkouts, social media campaigns, and other tactics to demand personal protective equipment, workers in animal slaughtering plants — largely invisible to consumers, and heavily dependent on keeping their jobs — have few options to speak up about unsafe conditions in a highly publicized way. 
  • Hispanic workers are less likely to benefit from Occupational Safety and Health Act regulation designed to equalize worker rights to safe and healthy workplaces. Under the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act, workers have a right to issue a complaint to OSHA when they experience illegal or hazardous conditions. OSHA often follows up a complaint with an inspection, and evidence shows that inspections lead to improved safety outcomes. However, results from a preliminary study reveal that Hispanic workers are substantially less likely to exercise their right to complain to OSHA, even though they face higher rates of workplace hazards (see chart). As illustrated in the above graph, from a forthcoming article by Matthew Johnson and Amanda Grittner, in parts of the country in which a larger share of the labor force in the agriculture, construction and manufacturing sector is Hispanic, rates of workplace injuries are substantially higher. Yet, as shown on the graph on the right, despite these elevated risks, rates of complaints to OSHA are lower among more heavily Hispanic workforces. In other words, the tools available to workers to complement the enforcement of government regulation are less frequently used by Hispanic workers, exacerbating disparities in working conditions across groups.
  • The specter of deportation risk marks a particular barrier for undocumented immigrant Hispanic workers to take action about unsafe conditions — but the resulting “chilling effect” extends more so to documented Hispanic immigrants and native-born Hispanic workers relative to peers. The lower willingness of Hispanic workers to report hazardous working conditions is part of a broader set of risks these workers face for taking actions against unsafe conditions. The costs of taking action against unsafe conditions can be catastrophic for workers that are undocumented as shown by examples chronicled in the press: one undocumented worker in Boston was deported after his employer retaliated for his filing a workers’ compensation claim, and another was deported after becoming a witness in an investigation following a deadly collapse at a construction site in New Orleans, for instance. The resulting “chilling effect” on workers’ willingness to speak up about workplace hazards extends to citizen and legal resident Hispanic individuals more so than other groups in part because Hispanic households are more likely to have undocumented individuals as family members, co-workers, or in their broader network. For example, one study finds that 66 percent of undocumented Hispanic or Latino immigrant individuals live with a documented Hispanic or Latino individual, and on the flip side 9 percent of authorized Hispanic individuals live with an undocumented immigrant and nearly 1 out of 4 Hispanic children reside with an undocumented parent. Further, deportation risks are substantially higher for Hispanic immigrants than for any other immigrant group
  • Low-income Hispanic families tend to rely more heavily on income derived from work than similar lower income families of other ethnic or racial groups. This greater dependence on work makes workers less able to speak up about unsafe work conditions, as the cost of job loss is much higher — putting them and their families at increased risk. Compared to peers, rates of employment among the lowest income Hispanic households with children are high, and less than 1 in 5 Hispanic workers were employed in jobs that allowed for working from home in the period just prior to COVID19. In the wake of COVID19, reliance on earnings increases poverty risk given the types of jobs and sectors Hispanic workers tend to be in: many of these jobs cannot be safely carried out from home and thus are either subject to layoffs or increased risk from the disease. Reliance on public services and benefits are low and underutilized among eligible Hispanic families, further escalating risk as pipelines to receive emergency assistance —through SNAP or through the tax system — are not familiar or readily in place. Hispanic parents report lack of eligibility due to immigrant status and fear as reasons for not taking up benefits, and immigration enforcement decreases take-up rates even further — even among those who are U.S. citizens. This lack of reliance on food stamps, public health insurance, and other social safety net programs as an outside option further exacerbates the risks that Hispanic workers face in speaking up about workplace hazards — since their cost of job loss is much greater —creating yet another challenge to taking action to reduce the hazards they face on the job.

What this Means:

Given the industries and jobs where Hispanic workers are employed, the unique challenges they face to demand for safe and healthy workplaces, it is perhaps no surprise that recent reports reveal proportionally higher COVID19 infection rates and deaths among Hispanic populations. Like many of their low-wage peers deemed essential workers, Hispanic workers are at high risk in the wake of COVID19. Hispanic workers face additional challenges by having low bargaining power to advocate for safer work conditions. Most of these workers are also mothers and fathers, and economic providers for families that conventionally have relied less on public benefits and services than families with similar income and education levels, and thus also at risk is the economic stability of children’s home environments.


Coronavirus / Labor Markets / Safety Net
Written by The EconoFact Network. To contact with any questions or comments, please email [email protected].
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