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As states reopen, black workers are at greater risk for COVID-19

How 3 crises are challenging U.S. today
How 3 crises are challenging U.S. today 14:23

The coronavirus has cut a lethal swath through communities of color in the U.S., accounting for a disproportionate number of deaths of black and Latinx Americans compared with whites. A key reason, and one that has largely been overlooked: Their jobs are killing them.

African Americans are more likely to work in jobs that can expose them to the virus, less likely to be able to take time off from work and more likely to be the sole breadwinner for their family. Such factors, a legacy of the country's long history of racism and segregation, compounds the higher incidence of underlying health conditions among blacks that make COVID-19 deadlier for black, Latino and Native people.

"The real drivers of the coronavirus are unjust policies and unhealthy settings — not people's genetic makeup, characteristics, or, necessarily, hygiene and social distancing behaviors," Dr. Zinzi Bailey and J. Robin Moon, both epidemiologists, wrote in a recent paper.

On the front lines

Gregg Finch has taken no time off from his job in the produce department of a Stop & Shop in Queens, New York, since he first heard about the coronavirus in February. The 44-year-old, who is African American and who told CBS MoneyWatch that he had lost a close friend to COVID-19, felt a moral obligation to keep working. "My job was to make sure other families can eat," he said.

But Finch also couldn't afford to take time off. Leaving work long-term would have required going on disability, he said, and as the sole provider for his daughter and two brothers with autism, Finch couldn't take the reduction in earnings.

Being an essential worker amid virus pandemic... 03:02

Black workers like Finch are much more likely than whites to be in "front-line" jobs — in health care, grocery stores, public transit or transportation. While they make up 12% of the population, African Americans account for 26% of public-transit workers; 19% of child care workers; and 18% of warehouse, trucking and postal workers, according to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic Policy Research. Overall, about 17% of America's front-line workforce is black.  

In the early days of the pandemic, while much of the country was under lockdown, it was largely black workers who did the essential work of caring for the sick, delivering packages and keeping grocery stores open. This came at a time that retail and delivery workers were reporting shortages of personal protective equipment.

Many employers, including supermarkets, only acquiesced to employee demands for protective gear after significant pressure. Finch said his union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, "did have to get a bit aggressive" before management allowed he and his coworkers to wear masks on the job.

Black, Latino COVID patients skew younger

Looking at a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sampling of COVID-19 hospitalizations shows a stark disparity: About a third of white patients hospitalized with the disease are younger than 65; for black patients, one-half are. Among Hispanics, a staggering 80% are below 65, and half are younger than 50.

"When you look at who is in the hospital from COVID, for blacks, it's working-age people," said Bill Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University who is also the chief economist for the AFL-CIO. "For Hispanics, it's overwhelmingly working-age. Why is that? Well, what do they do? They're meatpackers, grocery workers, bus drivers."

(The share of Hispanic workers in front-line jobs is about equal to their share of the workforce. But they are overrepresented in a few industries, like meatpacking, that have become incubators of COVID-19.)

The toll of exclusion

The concentration of black and Latinx workers in certain jobs is not accidental, but rather the lingering effect of history. After the end of slavery, black workers were shepherded into low-paying work, largely in agricultural, domestic and other service work. These majority-black occupations were also excluded from the 1930s New Deal that broadly raised wages and working standards for white-dominated occupations. 

To this day, such jobs remain among the lowest-paying. Today, black Americans' sharply lower wealth makes them less likely to attend college, and their disproportionate incarceration make it harder to get a so-called good job, said Dr. Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, an epidemiologist and principal investigator of Social Epidemiology to Eliminate Disparities Lab at the University of Ohio. That disparity has skewed how policymakers weigh the health risks and economic benefits of opening businesses.

"If white people were disproportionately impacted by coronavirus, if they were more likely to die from coronavirus, we would still be shut down right now," she said. 

"We have a hierarchy of human value in this country, where black people are lower on the hierarchy than white people," she said. "And now the administration, the leaders of this country, have decided it's fine for us to go back to business as usual. This is atrocious."

Other scholars who study inequality agree.

"If the face of the mortality were flipped, then the political discourse about how we protect the American population from the virus would be different," said Darrick Hamilton, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. "And if black people had greater economic agency, they would be able to better refute some of the demands that have been placed on them, like putting themselves at risk."

Best-selling scholars on race in America 04:26

What "essential" really means

The reopening of states' economies doesn't put black and white workers on the same footing. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's preeminent infectious-disease expert, admitted as much in a recent New York Times interview. They are less likely to be able to do their jobs from home, and less likely to have access to paid sick days, than white workers. 

For Jaribu Hill, a longtime human rights and labor organizer in Mississippi, the coronavirus crisis is just the latest in a longstanding pattern of workplace abuses. 

"We saw this before — we saw carpal tunnel, respiratory ailments, sexual harassment," said Hill, who is executive director of the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights. "People are working on top of each other."

She added, "The challenges we see existed before COVID — low-wage jobs, joblessness, substandard housing, a Jim Crow educational system. You multiply that by tens of thousands and you're going to see how much in jeopardy people are." 

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