Essential workers protest at City Hall in Sept. 2020
Essential immigrant workers rally for Covid care at City Hall. Photo by Kerim Harmanci. Taken Sept. 28, 2020.

With low-income workers among the most at risk for contracting and dying of Covid-19, a new report reveals that some California employers refused to offer their workers Covid-19 information, protective gear like masks or gloves, or even pay them minimum wage. 

The study, released this week, further alleges that some essential workers, many of them low-income and Asian or Latinx, were punished for speaking up about health concerns in the workplace. Others received no information regarding paid sick leave, or were yelled at by customers who refused to abide by health guidelines.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, a national legal and civil rights organization, and the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley, surveyed more than 600 workers throughout the state in the winter of 2020, and conducted at least eight in-depth interviews in spring 2021 in which subjects described their Covid-19 labor experiences. 

The report confirms what medical experts, politicians and advocates have been saying since the beginning of the pandemic: that essential workers were often tragically forced to choose between their health and economic survival. 

One was a woman from San Francisco who was a homecare worker for an 86-year-old. This woman, whose name was changed to “Chang” in the report to maintain anonymity, said that masks weren’t provided from March until June. She was afraid to ask for one, due to fears of retaliation. “We might request things for our safety, understand us; we’re essential workers, we’re putting our lives on the line,” Chang said, according to the report. Another caretaker in San Francisco, “Zhao,” claimed her employer told her to rewear her mask 25 times. 

But “Chang” was just the tip of the iceberg, according to Winifred Kao, the senior counsel for impact litigation at the Asian Law Caucus. Kao said her organization prompted the study following a surge of requests from workers who were worried about getting sick and had no idea what their labor rights were. 

“We were just getting an onslaught of demand for consultation,” Kao recalled. 

When able to finally quantify the data, the study found that the majority of respondents who worked in the restaurant industry felt their workplace was not up to par on Covid-19 health standards. About 59 percent of restaurant workers said they couldn’t physically distance, and 66 percent of them said the physical barriers used to prevent transmission either didn’t work or weren’t put up at all. 

Despite this, hundreds of workers, or about 45 percent of those surveyed, did not speak up about workplace concerns because they thought nothing would change or feared being retaliated against through diminished hours or probes into their immigration status. About 61 percent of Asian workers didn’t speak up out of fear nothing would change, compared to 29 percent of Latinx; about 84 percent of Latinx workers fretted over their immigration status, compared to 12 percent of Asians. 

“Liu,” a janitor who worked at a private school in San Francisco, said when his co-worker was exposed to Covid-19 through her husband, their manager told them both to keep quiet, keep working, and kept away key guidance and information about how to access Covid-19 tests. After Liu decided on his own to quarantine for five days without pay, he allegedly returned to a “verbally aggressive” manager who slashed his hours. Liu allegedly reported this to a government agency, but the employer faced zero consequences.

“I don’t feel I’ve been respected as a worker during the pandemic. I didn’t even get gloves and masks at work,” Liu said in the report. “They didn’t speak my language. They looked down on my work, didn’t think janitorial work [was] important. My boss didn’t care about me.”

Medical experts have long known the dangers facing Liu and his colleagues: low-income essential workers are often unable to work from home and are more likely to become exposed to the virus. Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF, said that he reuses his surgical mask all the time, but only because he only wears it periodically. 

“If I did wear them all day long, I’d want to wear a new one every other day,” Rutherford said. “If you have a mask that is worn, that doesn’t fit right, you start losing degrees of protection.”

Rutherford said masks are especially necessary to combat transmission in workplaces when people are infected but don’t know, like if they are asymptomatic. In past studies, other researchers found low-income workers may feel compelled to work through symptoms due to monetary concerns, and may only isolate once they receive a positive Covid-19 test. In the Asian Law Caucus/UC Berkeley report, about one-third of the 636 respondents “are not comfortable” alerting their boss when they feel symptomatic. 

For some who did voice concerns, it ended up costing them their livelihood. Even when a maskless customer sneezed and had a visibly runny nose in the store, a fast-food worker at one Los Angeles restaurant said her manager still told her she had to deliver the client’s food. 

The fast-food worker, “Roberta,” told researchers that she never missed a day during the pandemic because she needed the money, but began sleeping on the floor at home with a mask on to protect her husband, and had stopped hugging her 5-year-old son in case she had the virus. Her son would ask her, “You don’t want me anymore?” When Roberta became fed up and made a video highlighting her concerns in June, her manager reportedly increased her workload and refused to let coworkers aid her, then allegedly fired her shortly after. (She was rehired at a different location of the same company later on.)

This is why certain programs like Right to Recover in San Francisco and ARCH in Alameda County started paying low-income workers who got sick with Covid-19 two weeks’ worth of minimum-wage pay if they didn’t have paid sick leave. Both social workers and doctors argued the stipends encouraged isolation and curbed transmission. 

Santiago Lerma, a legislative aide to Supervisor Hillary Ronen — who co-created Right to Recover early on in the pandemic — recalled talking to asymptomatic essential workers who tested positive at the first Mission study in April 2020. “When we were talking to them, there was almost no choice in their mind: ‘I can’t isolate, I have to work.’”

According to February Right to Recover data from the Mission Economic Development Agency, a neighborhood nonprofit distributing these funds, 84 percent of its program recipients said they couldn’t isolate without the $1,250. Other data points suggest why: None could work from home, and about 66 percent of recipients had at least two children.

Though requests for Right to Recover funds have dropped off for now as cases decrease and vaccinations get into arms, during the winter surge, demand far exceeded supply, and not every eligible person received it. 

But even though these paid sick leave programs were up and running by the time ALC and UC Berkeley researchers interviewed participants, the report found some employees had no knowledge of them; only 32 percent were told by employers they could use Covid-19 paid sick leave for exposure or symptoms. This was especially true when it came to the lowest paid workers: for the total respondents earning less than the state minimum wage (about 17 percent), they lacked information about what to do when they contracted the virus compared to higher-earning workers. 

Though the pandemic led to additional discussions on the workplace and its protections, Kao said that most of these problems existed long before. Thus, researchers recommend increased accountability and enforcement from state labor agency watchdogs, expanding worker protections, creating easier paths toward immigrant citizenship, and increasing knowledge about workers’ rights across the board and in multiple languages. 

“Enforcement should be more proactive, instead of waiting until after retaliation happens when allegations are raised,” Kao said. 

One single mother and chef at an Oakland dim-sum restaurant, “Yang,” agreed. Pre-pandemic, Yang’s employer didn’t tell workers about paid sick leave. But when the virus descended, the restaurant agreed to shut down in spring, 2020, and reopen in July, with new barricades in place. Any customer who refused to follow health guidelines was escorted out. 

“During COVID, the employer listened to what workers requested,” Yang said. “I feel like I have been respected and my work is valued.”

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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