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Working from home not an option for most black, Latino workers during coronavirus crisis

“A lot of them have either lost their job altogether or risk contracting COVID-19 to put food on the table,” one economist said. “They can’t have both job security and health security at the same time.”

Manuela Sepulveda, a home health aide for elderly people, sits at her home in Gage Park, Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Manuela Sepulveda, a home health aide for elderly people, sits at her home in Gage Park. Manuela loves her job but is worried that she will get the people she works with sick.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Manuela Sepulveda works five days a week as a home health aide with two elderly clients —one 99 years old, the other 75.

As the coronavirus ravages the country, Sepulveda says her job is more important than ever, but going to work frightens her.

“When they told us we had to keep working, I was scared, but it’s also important to take care of elders who need our help. A lot of them live alone,” she said.

Sepulveda lives in Gage Park with her 11-year-old son and her husband, a security guard at Midway Airport, where several employees have tested positive for the virus.

“We make sure to take off our clothes as quickly as we can when we get home and keep our distance from others, but it’s stressful leaving the house every day,” she said.

For most black and Latino workers, sheltering in place and making ends meet are mutually exclusive.

About 84% of Latinos and 80% of African Americans couldn’t work from home in the pre-pandemic economy, according to a recent analysis of government employment figures by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The analysis also found only 10% of low-wage workers can clock in from home, compared to two-thirds of high-end earners, such as financial analysts and business consultants.

Black and Latino workers are much more likely than white or Asian workers to work in those low-wage jobs. They’re also more likely to be front-facing customer service workers or in so-called “essential” industries, such as food production and custodial services.

As the economy crumbles and government assistance is slow to ramp up, the coronavirus has become a candle burning at both ends for black and Latino workers, said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

“Two things are happening: Workers on the front line are at risk of exposure, not just doctors and nurses, but grocery store workers, home care aides, cooks and delivery drivers,” Gould said.

“Low-wage jobs are [also] disappearing, like retail and hospitality, sectors where black and Latino workers are overrepresented. And so a lot of them have either lost their job altogether or risk contracting COVID-19 to put food on the table.

“They can’t have both job security and health security at the same time.”

Many “essential” industries sustaining Chicago during the pandemic are staffed largely by black and Latino workers. An analysis of census figures by WBEZ showed 68% of bus drivers are black, while nearly half of food service workers are Latino. Around 75% of child care workers and custodial staff also are black or Latino.

Meanwhile, black people account for half of coronavirus cases and about 70% of deaths in Chicago despite being just 30% of the city’s population.

Public health experts attribute those disparities to inequities in access to health care and adequate housing, greater exposure to toxic environmental waste and other systemic issues.

Being unable to work from home is also likely a factor in the high infection rate seen in the black community, said Dr. Dorian Miller, associate professor of medicine and director of the Center for Community Health and Vitality at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Dorian Miller of the University of Chicago.

“If you have to go to work and you have to get to one place from another and you don’t have a car, you got to get on buses and trains. You have to interact with people on the street. All of those encounters gives the possibility of meeting somebody who’s infected with the coronavirus,” she said.

So far, Latinos are underrepresented in coronavirus cases, but underlying health conditions that afflict large swaths of the community — diabetes, hypertension, asthma — make them particularly vulnerable.

Undocumented workers — most of whom are Latino — are also pressured to continue working through the pandemic; barred from receiving unemployment benefits, they often depend on daily wages to survive.

“I expect these issue to become worse,” Miller said. “People are staying in the workforce to provide for their families.”

Felicia Brown an Uber, Lyft and Instacart driver, stands next to her vehicle.
Felicia Brown, 47, of the West Austin neighborhood, has begun delivering grocers for Instacart in addition to driving for Uber and Lyft.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress last month will hand some workers $1,200 checks and expand unemployment insurance to workers in the gig economy. But for many gig workers, that help won’t come soon enough.

“I know there’s a $1,200 check and unemployment benefits, but by the time that comes in, I’m already one month behind,” said Felicia Brown, who has driven for Uber and Lyft for three years and now delivers groceries through Instacart.

The 47-year-old lives in Austin with her granddaughter and son, who was recently laid off.

“Right now, it’s about going out, taking the risk and get whatever money I can,” she said. “It’s very stressful. My anxiety is at a level that it hasn’t been in a long time, but I have to keep working.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.