Latino workers are caught deciding between their health and livelihood

Latino workers are caught deciding between their health and livelihood

3:00pm Feb 18, 2022
Health officials say challenges related to taking time off of work might contribute to the spike in omicron cases in the Latino community.  (AP File Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Cases of COVID-19 in the Latino community in North Carolina skyrocketed in December, and only recently have declined. For hourly workers, taking time off means making really hard choices and financial strain. 

Martina Espino Trejo has been working as a server in a coffee shop for five years. She got COVID in January and had to take some days off of work. Her first concern was how difficult it would be to take the time off and pay for living expenses.

"I got a fever and my throat was aching," explained Trejo. "I spoke to my boss in person and explained my situation and he gave me a letter saying that since I have the vaccine I could stay at home three to five days according to my symptoms."

Everyone in her house got sick, including her boyfriend with whom she splits expenses. Her boss told her he would check if she was eligible for paid sick leave, but then notified her that they couldn’t pay for those days. He told her the company decided they would no longer pay for COVID-related leave this year.

"Me and my boyfriend weren’t earning anything that week and my two sons were also staying at home because they have been exposed to the virus and we didn’t know if they had it or not. So that week we had no money influx."

Trejo decided to take the time off for her own safety and to avoid getting other people sick. But she knows of people and coworkers who can’t afford missing a week of work. Since their symptoms were mild, they decided to not say anything and go to work. 

Cynthia Snider, an infectious disease doctor at Cone Health, says this might contribute to the huge spike in omicron cases in the community.  

"Before the five days you can be pretty infectious to others, and the key things are again, masking, and can you do your work from home. You know, that’s optimal," says Snider. "Or being in a setting where you don’t have to interact with others. Working while being positive within those five days is still considered very high risk."

Many are struggling to battle the financial strain from taking time off while being sick, and this is a pattern that has been prevalent since the beginning of the pandemic.

Yazmin García Rico is the director of Hispanic/Latinx policy and strategy at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. She says that right now there are no resources to compensate people for missing work even if they want to get vaccinated. She's also not aware of agencies that have any support for people who have to take time off. 

"We have a lot of guidance for employers where it's recommended to keep that in mind, right? If if they're able to support workers when they go and get vaccinated. But, there are no federal or state programs that I know to support with that," she says.

The job sectors with the highest concentration of Hispanic workers include farming, fishing and forestry, cleaning and maintenance, construction, and food preparation. 

Winston-Salem State University Professor of Economics Craig Richardson says these industries have been heavily impacted by COVID. He says hourly workers are already at a disadvantage by not getting the paid time off that salaried workers do. 

"Low-wage workers, a vast majority of them have less than $400 in the bank, according to a Federal Reserve study several years ago. And so you’re going to burn right through that emergency savings."

For workers like Trejo, she had to go back to work as soon as she could, only missing five days. She still hasn’t fully gotten her sense of smell back and gets migraines often.

She says it’s been hard, and her family is still recovering from missing that week of work.

But ultimately, her health was more important.

This story was produced by a partnership between WFDD and La Noticia. You can read this story in Spanish at La Noticia.

Eileen Rodriguez is a reporter for both WFDD and La Noticia through Report for America, where she covers COVID-19's impact in the Latino Communities.

Periodista de La Noticia y 88.1 WFDD, Eileen Rodríguez reporta el impacto de COVID-19 en la comunidad Latina en Carolina del Norte. Rodríguez es miembro del cuerpo de periodistas de Report for America 2021-2022

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