The Coronavirus Economy Hurts LA Latinos The Most

People walk past a store selling face coverings in East Los Angeles. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

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You've probably heard by now that Latinos are contracting and dying from the coronavirus more than any other ethnic group in California. But the pandemic is also disproportionately affecting their financial health.

That's according to a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which shows that in Los Angeles, 71% of Latinos — almost twice the percentage of whites — report serious financial problems from July to August. (For context, 52% of Black households in L.A. report serious financial problems; for white households, that number is 37%.)

That's been the case for Juan Quezada, who after working his way up from dishwasher to restaurant manager in East L.A. lost his job in March when Governor Gavin Newsom ordered restaurants to close.

"I am just draining my savings. Draining and draining and draining," he told me. "I had to sell my car. Uber is a luxury."

He now bikes or rides the bus to his part-time job as a fast food cashier.

"I only work three hours and four hours rather than eight or 10 or 12 like I used to work," Quezada said.

He estimates he has about six months of savings left, and he's not alone. In Los Angeles, more than 35% of households report serious problems with paying credit cards, loans, or other expenses, while the same percentage report having depleted all or most of their savings. Eleven percent of those polled say they didn't have any savings at the start of the outbreak.


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LATINO POVERTY IS DIFFERENT

"In Washington, the idea is you're poor because you don't work. That's not the issue with Latinos," David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told me.

"Latinos work. But they're poor. The problem is, we don't pay them," he said.

Hayes-Bautista's not being hyperbolic. Latinos have the highest rate of labor force participation of any group in California. When officials shut down most businesses in March, Latinos, like everyone else, lost jobs. But Latinos got back to work faster.

"In April the Latino [labor force participation] rate bounced right back up and actually has continued to increase slowly, whereas the non-Latino rate is dropping," he said. "The reward that Latinos have for their high work ethic is a high rate of poverty."

Hayes-Bautista points out that in California, as in some other regions in the U.S., Latinos tend to hold many of the jobs that have been deemed essential — like cleaners, agriculture, and construction workers for example - that require them to leave home and interact with the public, increasing their exposure. Latinos now account for 60% of the COVID-19 cases in California, even though they're about 40% of the population, according to state data.

Not only are they getting infected, but there's been a five-fold increase in working age Latinos dying from the virus since May.

"These are workers usually in their prime years, peak earning power and everything else," Hayes-Bautista said. "Latinos between 50 and 69, those are the ones that are being hit the hardest. That's pretty worrying."

EXPOSED WITH NO HEALTH INSURANCE

Many of the essential jobs that Latinos are more likely to do — farm worker, nursing home aide — lack benefits. That means Latinos are more exposed to the coronavirus and less likely to have health insurance due to lack of coverage through an employer.

Others, like Mariel Alvarez, lack health insurance because of their immigration status. Alvarez is undocumented and was brought to the U.S. by her parents as a child from Bolivia. She lives with her parents and sisters in the San Fernando Valley. Alvarez told me she lost her sales job and her employer-sponsored health insurance when the pandemic hit in March. Then she got sick.

Eventually, her whole family was ill. Alvarez had to pay out of pocket to go to a CVS clinic near her home. But after a couple of $50 visits, it got too expensive.

"I just couldn't afford to continue to go to the doctor," she said. She thinks she had COVID-19, but she was never able to get tested.

Now that Alvarez has recovered, getting a job with health insurance is crucial, because she doesn't qualify for any state or federal support. She is one of roughly 640,000 immigrants with a permit that allows her to work and defers deportation under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program.

"I don't want to jeopardize that. You're not supposed to use any of the government assistance when you're on that. You're only supposed to work and that's it," Alvarez said.

The pandemic has created a big need for one job — contact tracers. So Alvarez completed a certificate online. She's currently going through the application process; if she gets hired, she hopes to have benefits again.

In the meantime, she told me, she'll do her best not to get sick.

[Editor's note: A portion of this story talking about Latinos in the workforce has been edited for clarity.]