Workplace COVID-19 exposure was key contributor to death rate in Hispanic population, study finds

A new national report highlights the role workplace exposure had in high COVID-19 case and death rates among working-age people in the Hispanic community.

Published in Demographic Research, the report is authored by two university professors, Reanne Frank of Ohio State University and D. Phuong Do of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"Our findings point to the key roles played by age structure and differential exposure in contributing to the disproportionately severe impact of COVID-19 on the Hispanic population," the paper says.

That was not a surprise to Eliazar Posada, Acting President and CEO of the Triangle advocacy organization El Centro Hispano.

"We didn't have a study. We didn't have any formalized evidence of it. But we've seen it happen time and time again," said Posada. "Specifically when we're looking at the beginning of some of our work when it came to educating folks, we saw the number of Latinx people getting infected by COVID-19 skyrocket. There were astronomical numbers. And we knew that a lot of the folks that were being tested positive for COVID-19 were in some of these (industries) where you had a lot of exposure. We're talking about some folks in construction, folks working in restaurants, folks working in tight spaces (like) meat-packaging plants."

The paper found a big disparity in age-related deaths and population make-up, noting "...age-adjusted deaths for Hispanics revealed a 21.4 percentage point higher burden than their representation in the US population (19.39% of the age-standardized population vs. 40.83% of age-standardized deaths)," citing CDC data.

Hispanics make up a large percentage of frontline essential industries, ranging from manufacturing, food processing, agriculture, and healthcare, where remote work is often not possible. Ilana Dubester, Executive Director of The Hispanic Liaison, has heard concerns from workers during the pandemic.

"We have heard a lot of complaints over time, right. So the lack of social distancing, some places not providing adequate masks or even barriers, plexiglass barriers. People crowding while they're waiting to enter their work shift," Dubester said.

The report states that while Hispanics faced excess case burdens across all age groups, it is largest amongst those ages 30-59. In North Carolina, where demographic data is available, NCDHHS found Hispanics accounted for 20% of COVID cases - twice as high as their population makeup.

"Ventilation is a really important part of COVID prevention. And what we have in industries like meat processing plants is your housed in giant boxes without windows where air gets pushed through giant fans all over the place," Dubester said.

The report highlighted workers' efforts to draw attention to workplace safety issues, with the authors' finding, "At the end of the calendar year 2020, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency charged with assuring healthy working conditions for US workers, had received close to 14,000 virus-related complaints and referrals but issued fewer than 300 citations (2.1%; US Department of Labor 2020)."

"We have been involved in a multi-agency advocacy effort to push the (North Carolina) Department of Labor and OSHA to respond to the needs of frontline workers and essential workers," Dubester explained.

Both Posada and Dubester encouraged businesses to offer paid sick-leave, so workers would not feel pressured to work if possibly ill.

"That's always been a concern for folks that we work with and speak about. Not just about COVID-19, but this idea if I get a cold, or the flu, or some other illness, I don't have the ability or I can't afford to recover at home. I have to go work. But then what exposure are you putting not just your co-workers but their families," said Posada.

They also believe companies can be proactive in encouraging vaccinations.

"One of the things we've been consistently continuing asking for is paid time off so folks can go and get the vaccine and if they have to take the next day off because of whatever reaction, we make sure that's in place," said Posada.

"(Workers) just don't have time during the day or during the week to get vaccinated. Employers should be offering the vaccine for their workforce. Some are doing that, and incentivizing even with money to workers to get the vaccine. And there should hopefully be paid-time-off to get the vaccine, not (have it) counted against you," added Dubester.

The study found "little evidence to support the hypotheses regarding multigenerational household composition, pre-existing health conditions, or unequal quality/access to health care" playing large roles in increased COVID-19 cases and deaths within the Hispanic community.

The NC Department of Labor was unavailable for an interview, but in an e-mail to ABC 11, highlighted their work in providing on-site consultations, guidance materials, education and training, adding they set up a web page specifically addressing COVID-19.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services was unavailable for an interview.
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