Communities of color bear the burden of essential work in coronavirus crisis

Courtesy Naeemah SeifullahBy CATHERINE THORBECKE, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Raymond Copeland took pride in his work and being called one of “New York’s strongest.”

The New York City Department of Sanitation worker even bought a plaque to display in his car reading “strongest,” a nod to the epithet for the city agency, his daughter said.

The 46-year-old, who his daughter described as “hardworking” and “full of dad jokes,” also loved to lend his Sanitation Department cap to his two young grandsons.

“He had the greatest sense of humor that was so cringeworthy and very awesome,” his daughter, Naeemah Seifullah, told ABC News. “If he cared about you, if he loved you, he would go out of his way to do anything for you.”

When the city began to shut down and most people were told to stay at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, Copeland found himself among the grocery store clerks, bus drivers, janitors and more newly-classified “essential” workers who continued to go to work every day.

Copeland died of complications from COVID-19 on April 5, approximately a week after falling ill, Seifullah said.

She said she remembers her father as a hero, saying that he did not stop working “until his body forced him to stop.” At least 625 New York City sanitation employees have tested positive for COVID and six have died, according to the Department of Sanitation.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit black and Latino communities across the U.S. with furor, infecting and killing people of color at a disproportionate rate compared to white Americans, according to several states’ analysis of data.

Some economists attribute these devastating health outcomes to the disproportionate percentage of minorities who are deemed “essential workers” in this crisis, and being asked to continue coming to work — potentially exposing themselves and their families to the virus — while many others are able to work from home.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also pinned the overrepresentation of some racial and ethnic groups among critical workers as a possible contributing factor to the higher rates of infections in those communities.

“The risk of infection may be greater for workers in essential industries who continue to work outside the home despite outbreaks in their communities, including some people who may need to continue working in these jobs because of their economic circumstances,” the CDC states on its website in a post breaking down “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.”

People of color (black, Latino, Asian American and other non-whites) account for 43% of all essential workers in the nation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis of data released earlier this week by the Economic Policy Institute. White Americans still make up a majority of essential workers nationally, according to the data.

While black Americans represent just over 13% of the population according to the Census, black workers encompass 15% of all essential workers in the pandemic, according to the EPI data. Meanwhile, Hispanics or Latinos represent just over 18% of the population, but make up 21% of the essential workforce.

In some places in the U.S., including the epicenter of the outbreak where Copeland worked, New York City, black and Latino workers represent an even greater share of the essential workforce.

In New York City, 75% of all the city’s essential workers are people of color, according to a report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“It seems like people of color are disproportionately contracting COVID, especially if they are disproportionately working in a sector that is deemed ‘essential,'” Margaret Poydock, a policy associate at the EPI who co-authored the analysis, told ABC News.

“I think the occupations and industries that are deemed essential now have always been essential, and obviously in a time of crisis, in this coronavirus pandemic, it is imperative that they do receive workplace protections, such as personal protective equipment,” Poydock added.

Andre Perry, author of the book Know Your Price and a fellow at the Brookings Institution whose research focuses on race and economic inclusion, told ABC News that, “We’ve known for a long time that black and brown people are disproportionately are in occupations that require us to leave our houses.”

Perry cited a study released early the pandemic, in mid-March, that warned less than one in five black workers and approximately one in six Latino workers are able to telework.

“I was in a conversation with scholars where they debated should they be called ‘heroes’ or ‘hostages,'” Perry said of essential workers in the pandemic. “I think they could be considered both.”

“They deserve our credit and our admiration, but it’s not like they have a choice here,” he added. “Go to work or starve.”

Years of structural racism in housing, education and across all industries has contributed to the overrepresentation of minority workers in these typically low-wage “essential” positions in the current pandemic, according to Perry.

The EPI data on essential workers found that half of essential industries have a median hourly wage that is less than the nonessential workforce’s median hourly wage.

“Pay only reflects what we feel people are worth,” Perry said. “They are essential but they are also replaceable, so it reduces the wages that they will get.”

Moreover, Perry said that according to his research, people of color are more likely to live in intergenerational housing, oftentimes with older relatives who may be more at-risk to complications from COVID-19.

The CDC also states that multi-generational households, “which may be more common among some racial and ethnic minority families, may find it difficult to take precautions to protect older family members or isolate those who are sick, if space in the household is limited.”

As deaths among essential workers — especially among people of color — rise during the pandemic, there have been widespread calls for increased access to PPE, hazard pay, better paid sick leave and more worker protections.

While some improvements have been made, advocates say it is still not enough to protect workers. Frontline and essential worker protections are a keystone part of the Heroes Act that passed in the House last Friday, though the measure is not expected to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“It’s hard to blame any one person or group of people but we’ve developed a culture in which profit margins are more valued than people,” Perry said of why it has been so hard to take care of essential workers.

He added that the heads of corporations that “can make adjustments to pay structure that will enable employees to get better benefits” are the people who “don’t come in contact, don’t interact with essential workers.”

Poydock said that labor unions have especially stepped up to the plate to fight for workers in the pandemic.

“The Trump administration has not provided these workers with these essential protections,” she said. “Unions have been fighting for these workers to receive these protections.”

She added that according to their research, “a union worker on average makes about 12% higher on average than their non-union counterpart.”

While Seifullah said it’s hard to know what better precautions could have been taken for her father, she thinks these essential workers who are risking their lives just to do their job deserve more.

“These people are putting themselves out there to make sure that our way of life is more comfortable,” she said. “I know that they deserve a lot and they are being put at risk.”

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