Francisco Herrera arrived at the San Francisco Day Labor Program on Cesar Chavez Street, early on July 4. To his surprise, he received a call from his dispatcher Louis Legowski. But it wasn’t Legowski on the phone. Instead, his mother informed Herrera that she had found her son, a former painter in the union, dead in his chair. For the past couple of years, Legowski had connected day laborers with people looking for workers. Now, he is dead at age 55, with no cause of death given.
This marked the ninth death related to the San Francisco Day Labor program in the past year alone, a mortality rate far exceeding past years. That is nine deaths in a group of only 138 active members.
“It’s intense,” said Herrera. While the Medical Examiner has yet to label Covid-19 as the cause of any of the deaths, Herrera believes all are covid-related. Herrera believes the lack of housing and proper medical care during the pandemic may have played a role in their deaths.
“As a group, we have felt the blow of covid. In 30 years of doing this work, of course, day laborers have died,” but Herrera has never before seen this many deaths in a span of 12 months.
“We have paid a big price,” added Herrera. “It seems to be related to health and previous conditions.” And of course, housing.
Throughout the past year, the mortalities added up. First, in the fall of 2020, Carmelo Jimenez was found dead in his shower in his single-room-occupancy (SRO) room at The Dudley on Sixth Street. “We just found him dead,” said Marco Figueroa in Spanish, a fellow day laborer who lives three doors down from Jimenez’ room, and checked on Jimenez after nobody had seen him for a few days and a foul odor began to emanate from his room.
Just a few days earlier, Jimenez, who was from Mexico, had picked up a box of groceries from the Food Hub at 701 Alabama St. The San Francisco Medical Examiner has no record of him in their system.
Then, James Burke, a 35-year-old man battling mental health problems who would often stop by the day labor program for a cup of coffee or some food, was found dead on the steps in front of Leonard Flynn Elementary School, where he had set up a makeshift bed.
According to the record of death from the Medical Examiner, Burke’s parents hung up before details could be given about his death. His official cause of death was “acute mixed drug (fentanyl and methamphetamine) intoxication.”
And then Jorge Cano, a day laborer who had survived a confirmed case of covid, died suddenly in his SRO at the Cadillac Hotel, according to Herrera and his friend Joaquin Gutierrez, who also lived in the hotel. The medical examiner said he was pronounced dead at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, just a short walk away from the hotel. The hospital could not be reached to confirm his cause of death.
Valdez, executive director of Dolores Street Community Services, recognized that Cano, who was undocumented, did have diabetes and other pre-existing conditions which put him at high risk. “He very likely could have died from covid,” she said.
Next, word came from another member that Miguel Hernandez, a day laborer, had also passed away. And although Hernandez, who was from Cuba, had not been active in the day labor program for some time, it was still a blow. His case is still under investigation by the medical examiner.
According to the medical examiner, “’pending’ means the doctor is still working on the investigation, and a cause and manner of death has not been determined.”
Of the approximately 2,000 to 3,000 day laborers living and working in San Francisco at any given time, just 138 are members of the San Francisco Day Labor program. It’s unclear how many had covid among the larger community or the program’s members. Herrera said that 80 percent of the staff of the San Francisco Day Labor program tested positive for covid during the last year.
Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of UCSF’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and co-founder of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations said the community’s profile definitely put it at greater risk.
“Unfortunately, for those who are most marginalized, not only are they more at risk for covid, but they’re also at a higher risk of dying and us not knowing the cause of death,” she said.
She noted that the essential workers she studied, and particularly day laborers, are often worried about access to medical care because of their immigration status or economic barriers, in turn putting them at higher risk of health problems.
According to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, 115 Latino San Franciscans have died of covid. That is 20.6 percent of the city’s total deaths, a disproportionate tally considering Latinx residents only make up 15.2 percent of the city’s population.
In San Francisco, 29 cases have been linked to SROs, where many day laborers live.
Transmission rates are fast in the dense living situations of many day laborers in San Francisco, says Dr. Bibbins-Domingo, “so if there is an infection, it’s very hard for that not to extend to another person who’s in that environment.”
“The death toll from COVID is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Bibbins-Domingo.
“It’s covid, plus other deaths that are probably related to covid but just not diagnosed yet as covid … plus deaths that are related to other health conditions that got worse because of the pandemic and the co-occurring economic crisis during the pandemic. … These are true pandemic-related deaths … even if all of them are not covid,” she said.
Herrera agreed. These numbers, he said, “point to the vulnerabilities” of day laborers, who often live in fear of not being able to pay rent on their room or not having enough money to buy food. Never mind saving their money to send back to their families in other countries.
Hugo was another day laborer who was reported dead during the pandemic by a member of the San Francisco Day Labor Program. His cause of death is unknown.
And day laborer Javier Rosas collapsed in his apartment at 16th and Mission streets after recovering from a stint at San Francisco General for a condition that left him skinny and weak, said Herrera. After leaving the hospital, Rosas went back to work immediately. A few weeks later, he was dead.
“He could have had covid, and we didn’t even know it,” said Herrera, although The San Francisco Department of Public Health says that Rosas died from “natural causes.” Strangely enough, the Medical Examiner listed his case as “pending.”
Day laborers such as Javier Rosas, who was found dead in his apartment, often rent rooms in hotels or apartments where the living conditions are poor. And, often, they do not have close family or friends nearby who would encourage them to seek medical help if needed, or report their death to authorities.
In Rosas’ case, it was his contractor boss who found him dead in his apartment, after Rosas abruptly stopped showing up at his job site. He was a strong, reliable worker, and the contractor was concerned. A UCSF study of death rates during the pandemic has shown that construction workers have a 49 percent increased risk of dying compared to all other years.
While it’s unclear how many day laborers may be among the official count of covid deaths, it is clear that essential workers were most vulnerable to dying.
A team of researchers at UCSF (including Dr, Bibbins-Domingo) published a study comparing death rates in California by occupation. Using death records from the California Department of Public Health, they found mortality rates jumped 49 percent for construction workers compared to pre-pandemic averages. During the pandemic, Latino Californians experienced a 36 percent increase in mortality, with a 59 percent increase among Latino food/agriculture workers.
Interestingly, all nine of the deaths associated with the San Francisco Day Labor Program were men. The Women’s Collective, or La Colectiva, which has 120 members, most of which are Latina domestic workers, did not suffer any deaths during the pandemic.
Ruth Barajas, the director of the Resource Hub for the Latino Task Force, often hired day laborers during the pandemic to do driving and janitorial work which helps keep their work going. “They have been willing to step up into jobs that make them further vulnerable,” she said.
Responding to the stories of the nine individuals who have died in the past year, she said, “it just seems pretty crazy. I mean … that number is so significant.”
In the case of Jacinto Noh Canche, a day laborer who was killed on May 22, his inability to find housing left him living on the streets — and vulnerable to crime. He was shot dead in Rolph Park, where he often slept after losing his housing. Since our publication of his obituary, a GoFundMe has been set up for Canche to pay for his body’s repatriation back to Mexico. The Mexican Consulate is legally required to pay for the transportation of bodies back to Mexico but has not kept its agreement in doing so.
Juan Narvaez, a day laborer who Herrera said had covid previously, was also found dead in his home by a friend and fellow day laborer. After recovering from covid, he “died all of a sudden,” said Herrera.
“The deaths of our day laborers are a symptom of lack of access to support and solidarity,” says Herrera. He believes there is a need for cooperative, community-based, and community-led solution-oriented work. That way, “we all survive,” not just the “ultra-rich.”