NOTE: I need more interviews! This was not my original pitch. I came across this story as I was doing research and interviews for my first idea, about the death rate among the Black population, and I realized that this story was more specific and “newsworthy”, meaning this is not only explained by racism, I have more to explore here. But because I pivoted and there was Thanksgiving week in the way, I couldn’t get more interviews.
North Carolina: how construction sites contributed to Covid-19 cases among Hispanics
Hispanics/Latinos represent only 9% of the population but account for 29% of all cases in the state. A lot of them work in the construction sector, one that was deemed ‘essential’ during the pandemic even though construction sites are considered “high-risk” settings for the disease
North Carolina’s construction sites have contributed to form one of the state’s most glaring disparities when it comes to ethnicity and Covid-19: the high prevalence of cases among the Hispanic community. Hispanics represent only 9% of the population but account for 29% of all Covid-19 cases in the state — and this percentage used to be even higher. In July, for example, Hispanics were 46% of all Covid-19 cases in North Carolina. One of the main factors that led to this situation is the fact that there are higher proportions of Hispanics working in essential jobs that make social distancing difficult. One of them is the construction sector, deemed ‘essential’ during the entire pandemic.
Anyone who accesses the North Carolina Department of Health’s Covid-19 response can learn the following information: “farms and meat and poultry processing plants along with construction sites throughout North Carolina appear to be high-risk settings for transmission of Covid-19 due to the nature of the work, the challenge for employees to practice social distancing and the continuous nature of the plant operations”.
In Mecklenburg County, one of the two main urban counties in the state, the percentage of Hispanics is bigger than the general in the state — Hispanics represent 14% of the population in the county and only 9% in the state. And in there, too, the rate of Covid-19 cases among them is disproportionate: 21% of all cases in the county are among the Hispanic community. County officials also admit that at least a big part of that is because Hispanics work in jobs considered essential, mainly in the construction sector.
The decision of considering construction workers as essential workers was, from the beginning, a source of safety concerns that ranged from household to transportation and workplace conditions. “Some people started to express their concerns that construction sites would transform into clusters because of transportation and workplace conditions. It’s not rare to see a lot of these workers sitting in a pickup truck together”, said Alison Kuznitz, a journalist at the local newspaper The Observer who has been covering the pandemic in Mecklenburg County since the beginning.
Kuznitz said she witnessed some efforts by the government to reaching the Hispanic population in the county. “They are doing campaigns in Spanish and briefings with Spanish subtitles; actually not only Spanish but they are translating the campaigns to ten different languages because we have immigrants from other parts of the world who don’t speak English nor Spanish.” According to her, grassroots organizations and food pantries have also been of huge help, since so many workers lost their jobs because of the pandemic or were unable to work due to the long-lasting effects of the disease.
Another factor for worry among Hispanics, according to the Mecklenburg County officials, are the household conditions. Essential workers who are more exposed to the virus can spread the disease to their immediate family members. If they live not only with their kids, but also with their parents or grandparents, that creates multigenerational transmission, which can be very dangerous.
In order to try to avoid construction sites becoming clusters of Covid-19, the Charlotte Commercial Construction Coalition (4C), a coalition of more than 30 Charlotte-area general contractors defined in April a series of rules that employers and employees of the sector should follow. But those are not enough to tranquilize the workers. So far, North Carolina registered 18 reported clusters in construction workplaces, according to state data. What they consider a cluster is a minimum of 5 cases with illness onsets or initial positive results within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases.
Not a New Problem
The worrying situation of Hispanics during the pandemic of Covid-19 in North Carolina is, of course, a 2020 issue. But suffering from workplace injuries and illnesses is nothing new to Hispanics. Data from “Death on the Job 2020”, a report from AFL-CIO (The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), shows that 67% of Latinos killed on the job were immigrants; their job fatality rate was higher than the national average. In 2018, there were 961 deaths of Hispanics because of fatal work injuries. Of those, 294 occurred within the construction industry.
The same document also shows that Hispanics represent the largest number of people affected by Covid-19 by population size: 3.5 million persons were living in the hotspot counties around the country that were examined by the research. The report highlights the responsibility of the agencies in charge of enforcing working conditions and the federal administration. There were no standard procedures regarding that to follow across the country during this pandemic.
According to CPWR (The Center for Construction Research and Training), a nonprofit dedicated to reducing occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities in the construction industry, in 2015 there were 2.8 million Hispanics working in construction in the United States. About 73% of them were born outside the U.S. (need a quote about what is needed to protect this population and what are the main challenges they face; low wages, language barriers…)