Austin's Latino Construction Workers Have Been Pummeled By COVID. Researchers Say Economic Policies, Rapid Growth Are To Blame.
Snehal Patel, an internal medicine physician and assistant professor at UT's Dell Medical School, said it was clear from the first few days of the pandemic that the coronavirus was wreaking havoc on Austin’s Latino communities.
“We noticed in the first week here,” he said.
"It was very clear right from the get-go of the epidemic that there is a disproportionate impact that is occurring here … on communities of color and amongst vulnerable occupational categories."
Patel, who has been gathering intake data from Dell Seton Medical Center, said nine of the first 10 COVID patients who came in were Latino.
In the first three months, he said, a whopping 78% of Dell Seton’s COVID patients were Latino. The majority spoke Spanish as their primary language. And when broken down by occupation, most worked in construction, maintenance or other frontline jobs.
According to Patel’s data, 36% of those patients worked in construction; 11% worked in mechanical, electrical or plumbing jobs; 10% in janitorial or housekeeping work; and 6% did maintenance and landscaping.
“It was very clear right from the get-go of the epidemic that there is a disproportionate impact that is occurring here … on communities of color and amongst vulnerable occupational categories,” he said.
Epidemiologists found that construction workers in Austin, specifically, were five times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than other workers in the region. In the Austin area, there are roughly 69,000 construction workers.
According to a new report from the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at UT's School of Law, these trends are the result of policies that fail low-wage workers, as well as rapid growth in Austin.
Karen Engle, the center's founder and co-director, said construction workers were put in a tough spot by state lawmakers from the beginning.
Shortly after the pandemic was declared, Gov. Greg Abbott designated construction workers as essential, meaning they kept working as the coronavirus started to spread rapidly through communities.
"If people don’t have sick leave then they are going to be less likely to stay home if they are experiencing symptoms."
These workers largely don’t have access to things like workers’ compensation and paid sick leave, Engle said. Workers' comp is a form of insurance that provides missed wages and medical benefits to people injured on the job.
“Most construction companies don’t offer workers' compensation,” she said, “and Texas is the only state in the country that doesn’t require that employers provide [it].”
Austin has tried to mandate paid sick live, but state preemption laws prohibit Texas cities from expanding various protections for workers.
“If people don’t have sick leave then they are going to be less likely to stay home if they are experiencing symptoms,” Engle said.
She said workers are also less likely to get tested without paid sick leave, because if they test positive, they will be forced to miss work – and a paycheck.
“Since so much construction is done on a contractual basis and is highly precarious," she said, "then it also means you won’t just miss those days on the job, but you might not be able to get back in on the job or another project.”
Researchers found race was also a factor that made Austin construction workers more likely to come into contact with the virus.
The Latino population here is more likely to work in jobs with high-risk exposure to COVID-19 without adequate protections like masks, gloves, face shields, contact tracing and routine testing, Patel said.
Despite making up only 34% of the population in Austin and Travis County, the researchers found, "Latinx individuals make up 50% of those who have tested positive for coronavirus, 54% of COVID-related hospitalizations, and 51% of COVID-related death,” as of Oct. 9.
These communities are more likely to be uninsured, face food insecurity, and have less stable housing and utilities – as well as significantly less trust in government services that work to serve people with those needs.
Engle said there are also many Latinos working in frontline jobs in Austin who are undocumented and therefore have even fewer protections.
“The fact that they were vulnerable was related to their occupations,” she said, “but their occupations were related to their race and ethnicity – and the income of the jobs.”
On top of these underlying issues, researchers say Austin’s explosive growth exacerbated the problem.
Limited regulations and low taxes have drawn businesses to Austin – along with an influx of low-wage jobs where workers have few protections.
Engle said it is well documented that Austin’s growth has made it too expensive for low-income communities of color to live here.
Patel said he's been concerned watching these inequities play out in a city that “brands itself as a liberal or progressive city.” It’s clear, he said, that Austin has city-level policies that fall short of addressing “the structural vulnerabilities of those most at risk” of getting seriously ill from COVID-19.
“In some ways this is not unexpected,” Patel said. “It is tragic. And I think it is the result of long-standing vulnerabilities and long-standing policies that increase vulnerability amongst certain frontline workers.”
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