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Latino officials call for more workplace enforcement, less victim-blaming in COVID-19 fight

Latinos in Illinois have contracted the coronavirus at more than three times the rate of the white population.

Francisco Anzures, a Back of the Yards resident, learned in May he was sick from the coronavirus, which has hit the Latinx community in Chicago hard.
Francisco Anzures, a Back of the Yards resident, learned in May he was sick from the coronavirus, which has hit the Latinx community in Chicago hard.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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Francisco Anzures learned he was sick with the coronavirus in May after his employer had him take a test.

For one week, the factory where he worked in the southwest suburbs was shut down for cleaning. For two weeks, the Back of the Yards resident received paid time off, at his $15-per-hour wage. And for two months, he stayed home sick, isolating himself from his wife and two kids while his family lost their source of income.

Anzures never went to the hospital because he has no insurance and feared he wouldn’t ever return home.

While he was sick, Anzures said he could barely eat. He struggled to breathe. One night, he feared he would die.

“I thought that I wouldn’t survive,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “It was taking me too much effort to breathe. It’s something so horrible that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

Most of the employees at the factory are Latino immigrants, and many commute from Chicago, Anzures said. Anzures is among 15 people who tested positive after an outbreak in May, and he suspects he caught the virus at work.

Anzures’ story is far from unusual in his neighborhood. He lives in the 60609 ZIP code, which includes Back of the Yards, New City, McKinley Park and Bridgeport, and is among the top 15 in the state for positive COVID-19 cases. The positivity rate there was 11.1% for the week ending Aug. 29, up from 10.3% the prior week.

As of Aug. 30, the 14-day case-positivity rolling average was 4.2% in Illinois. For that same period, it was 12.8% among the state’s Latino population, and Latinos accounted for 20% of all new cases in Illinois and 46% of all new cases in Chicago.

About 2.9% of Latinos across the state have had the coronavirus, according to an analysis by the Latino Policy Forum. It most recent data also shows that, of the 15 ZIP codes with the most COVID-related deaths, six are majority Latino.

Cumulatively, as of Aug. 30, the Latino population has contracted coronavirus at a rate that’s more than three times that of the white population, according to the Latino Policy Forum. The Black population has contracted the virus at more than twice the rate of the white population.

Chicago’s public health commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady, has noted the rise in coronavirus cases in Latino communities, in particular on the Southwest Side and Northwest Side.

In the 60632 ZIP code, which includes parts of Brighton Park, Archer Heights and Gage Park, the positivity rate was 15.6% for the week ending Aug. 29. In 60629, including West Lawn and Chicago Lawn, the positivity rate was 14.5%. On the Northwest Side, Hermosa and Belmont-Cragin in 60639 had a 13.4% positivity rate, and 60634 was 11.1%.

Dr. Allison Arwady.
Dr. Allison Arwady.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times file

As those numbers surge, some Latino political leaders and health experts have questioned whether city officials have engaged in victim blaming and whether more can be done with workplace enforcement.

In mid-August, officials including Latino aldermen, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Arwady, met with Latino leaders to strategize about how to reach the Latino community.

City leaders have created a video series called “Como Estamos Chicago” to remind people to social distance, wear face masks and isolate if they test positive. They told community leaders that more cases are coming from within families and because of social gatherings, and they recruited them to help get that message out.

“My concern with that framing is it does not acknowledge the economic hardship that Latino communities face, with respect to being able to self-isolate to mitigate the spread of COVID,” said Sylvia Puente, the Latino Policy Forum’s executive director. “Many Latinos are essential workers. They’re in smaller, multigenerational households. This is only going to be exacerbated because of months of not being able to pay rent and families doubling or tripling up.”

Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd), whose ward includes Little Village, remembers the early wave of the pandemic.

“We knew what was going to happen, given the dynamics of Latinos in the workplace as essential workers, the fact that our people wouldn’t be able to take time off and be compensated for that time off,” Rodriguez said.

Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd) gives out free face masks and hand sanitizer in Little Village on the Southwest Side.
Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd) gives out free face masks and hand sanitizer in Little Village on the Southwest Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times file

Nubia Willman, director of the mayor’s Office of New Americans and a leader in the city’s COVID Racial Equity Rapid Response Team, said Lightfoot has visited some of the Latino communities hit hardest by the pandemic. She said through the Racial Equity Rapid Response team’s engaging with labor unions and sharing Know Your Rights webinars in English and Spanish, Latino workers can exert their rights.

“If someone does catch COVID, you’re not bad, no one is implying that, no one is blaming anyone,” Willman said. “The data is the data.”

Dr. Marina Del Rios, associate professor of clinical emergency medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, questioned how officials could assert that cases in Latino communities were so high because of social gatherings since there’s inadequate data from contract tracing.

“The narrative that’s being pushed from the leadership in Chicago has been that there’s a lot of personal choices that have led to a spread of infection lately,” Del Rios said.

In a video segment addressing rising cases, Arwady said while 90% of contact tracing investigations begin 24 hours within each positive test, reaching people has been a challenge.

“The other question is how forthcoming people are being when they’re asked where they think they got infected, because let’s face it, a lot of people face repercussions in terms of their employment,” Del Rios said. “There’s always fear, for a lot of these jobs you’re not essential, you’re expendable.”

When it comes to protections in the workplace, an anti-retaliation ordinance was passed in May to prohibit employers from punishing employees for obeying COVID-related government orders. The Business Affairs and Consumer Protection department is currently investigating three cases of workplace retaliation related to COVID-19. Since Chicago began reopening on June 3rd, the city department received 3,230 complaints of businesses not following guidelines and conducted 1,666 investigations. There have been 118 cited businesses.

All employees, regardless of immigration status, have a right to file safety and health whistleblower complaints through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and can do so confidentially, which can lead to inspections and fines for the businesses.

Working Family Solidarity, a non-profit workers rights’ organization whose members are two-thirds Latino, has helped advocate for COVID-19 protections in the workplace.

Executive Director Leone Bicchieri said that will sometimes involve talking to managers or asking workers if they’re comfortable filing reports with OSHA, or reaching out to reporters. Often, he said, immigrant workers are intimidated to file complaints for fear of losing their jobs.

Of the 920 COVID-19 related complaints filed to OSHA from Illinois, 781 were from the Chicago area as of Sept. 1. Often the complaints say the employers have not provided sufficient Personal Protective Equipment or implemented social distancing. In some cases, employers did not tell workers of positive cases among employees.

U.S. Rep. Jesus Chuy Garcia, D-Ill., whose district is made up of Southwest and Northwest side Latino neighborhoods, said countering the risk at workplaces can be tough, especially where there’s no union or workers are undocumented.

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia speaks in June at a demonstration by mothers for peace in their communities and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in front of a mural of César Chávez and Martin Luther King, Jr.
U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia speaks in June at a demonstration by mothers for peace in their communities and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in front of a mural of César Chávez and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In April and June, his office sent letters to executives of several large businesses, including Chicago-area Amazon, OSI Group’s meatpacking plants and Raymundo’s Food Group sites. The letters each addressed positive cases at the locations, accused the companies of negligence, and asked for improvements in workplace safety and protection from retaliation.

The companies sent letters in response to Garcia’s concerns, listing safety measures they’ve implemented during the pandemic. Examples include five more minutes during break time at Amazon so that workers can wash their hands, additional hand-washing stations at Raymundo’s plant and temperature checks at OSI Group plants. OSI Group also noted they were closely monitoring COVID case numbers in the ZIP codes where their employees live, though they’ve since discontinued that practice.

Anzures’ wife, Esmeralda DeLaRosa, said while he was isolating at home, she would make her three kids eat their meals in their bedrooms, and Anzures would have to use gloves and wipe things down whenever he used their shared bathroom.

“We would love to be comfortable at home, without having to go out, but we can’t, we have to work to get this bread,” DeLaRosa said.

Over the two months that he was sick, he tested positive three times before finally recovering. She and her kids also took tests but never caught the virus.

Anzures, who is now back at work, said the company he works for has mandated mask-wearing, staggered break times and closed off the lunchroom so people don’t gather. Instead, there are multiple microwaves throughout the site. Despite getting sick, he’s relieved he has a job.

“It wasn’t until after we got sick that they began taking more drastic measures,” Anzures said.