Black, Hispanic Americans are Overrepresented in Essential Jobs

Black workers march in Philadelphia calling for justice for workers and George Floyd in the wake of his murder.

Amicus Brief: Derrick Palmer, et al., vs. Inc., et al.

Amazon’s Staten Island center, known as JFK8, operates 24 hours a day, seven day a week and employs thousands of workers. The workers in the lawsuit, including a warehouse associate, a problem solver, a processes assistant and a robotics team member — along with some of their family members — claimed that JFK8 failed to comply with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and argued that Amazon’s productivity requirements prevent employees from engaging in basic hygiene, sanitation and social distancing. Their complaint charged Amazon with public nuisance, breach of duty to provide a safe workplace and failure to timely pay COVID-19 leave, and that the company failed to comply with state and federal public health guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A nationwide group of occupational health physicians and public health experts, including SPH’s Linda Forst, MD, senior associate dean, submitted an amicus curiae brief to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in support of the plaintiffs’ claims.  This section of the brief examines the overrepresentation of Black, Latino and Hispanic workers in at-risk jobs like warehousing.

Though it is clear that essential workers are at a significantly increased risk of harm from COVID-19, another enduring trend of this pandemic has been the disproportionate impact of the virus on Black and Hispanic workers and their families. Ethnic and racial minority groups, including Black and Hispanic communities, are suffering more acutely from the virus due to a number of social, economic, and health inequities that reflect the ongoing impacts of structural racism. As CNN notes: “A key reason, and one that has largely been overlooked: Their jobs are killing them.”36

While many in the United States have been able to work remotely, a disproportionate share of Black and Hispanic people have essential jobs that require them to go to work in order to provide critical national services that enable our communities to function during pandemic shut-downs. These essential jobs, particularly in high-risk occupations like enclosed warehouse work, increase Black and Hispanic communities’ risks of exposure to the virus, risks that are magnified when employers do not implement and enforce effective workplace protocols that protect workers on the job and allow them to take paid sick leave.

Black and Hispanic people in the United States and in New York City are at higher risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19

Throughout this pandemic, Black and Hispanic people are bearing the brunt of higher rates of viral transmission, morbidity, and mortality—both across the country and in New York City.37 Researchers have found little evidence to suggest that these differences in outcomes are biological; rather they are the result of longstanding and pervasive structural inequalities, systemic racism, and health inequities within the United States that increase the likelihoods ethnic and minority groups will get exposed to the virus, suffer serious illness and death if they are infected, and face barriers to accessing testing and treatment.38 

In the United States, the most up-to-date reporting available by race shows that Black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous people have a COVID-19 death rate of double or more that of White and Asian American people, who experience the lowest age-adjusted rates.39 This data is further supported by an analysis of state-reported data by the Kaiser Family Foundation which shows that Black people in America account for more cases and deaths relative to their share of the population in 30 of 49 states reporting cases, and in 34 of 44 states reporting deaths.40 Hispanic Americans comprise a higher share of cases and deaths compared to their share of the total population in 35 of 45 states reporting cases and in 10 of 44 states reporting deaths.41

These disparities persist in New York City as well. In New York City, both Hispanic and Black people are dying at higher rates as compared to other ethnic groups. Current testing data collected by the New York State Department of Health shows that while Hispanic and Black people are 29 percent and 22 percent of the city’s population respectively, they comprise 34 percent and 28 percent of the city’s deaths respectively.42 This is compared to White people, who make up 32 percent of the city’s population, but only 27 percent of the city’s deaths.43 Across the country, and in New York City, Black and Hispanic people continue to suffer graver outcomes from COVID-19.

Health disparities are rooted in social determinants of health, including overrepresentation in essential jobs

The striking disparities in COVID-19-related outcomes for Black and Hispanic people reflect and exacerbate structural racism and persistent underlying social and economic inequities that influence individual health. These factors include, but are not limited to, disparities in income, education, health insurance and access to medical care, access to food, job characteristics, and living conditions.44 The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine note that there is little evidence to suggest that differences in COVID-19 related outcomes are a function of inherent susceptibility to the virus, but “rather reflect the impact of systemic racism leading to higher rates of co-morbidities that increase the severity of COVID-19 infection and the socioeconomic factors that increase likelihood of acquiring the infection.”45

Numerous studies have validated these findings.46 For example, a study evaluating COVID-19’s racial and ethnic disparities found that minority groups have a disproportionate burden of underlying comorbidities and that “racial/ethnic minorities and poor people in urban settings live in more crowded conditions both by neighborhood and household assessments and are more likely to be employed in public-facing occupations…that would prevent physical distancing.”47 The study went on to note that “‘social distancing is a privilege’ and the ability to isolate in a safe home, work remotely with full digital access, and sustain monthly income are components of this privilege.”48

These disparate outcomes among Black and Hispanic people have also been documented in New York City. Indeed, one study concluded that although Black and Hispanic patients in New York City hospitals were more likely than White patients to test positive for COVID-19, Black patients were less likely to become critically ill or die after adjustment for comorbidity and neighborhood characteristics after hospitalization, supporting the assertion that “existing structural determinants—including inequality in housing, access to care, differential employment opportunities, and poverty—that remain pervasive in Black and Hispanic communities should be addressed in order to improve outcomes in COVID-19–related mortality.”49

Black and Hispanic people are overrepresented in the essential workforce

One such structural inequality Black and Hispanic communities face is the fact that people of color are overrepresented in essential jobs—including jobs in warehouses—which require them to work outside the home and often offer less reliable social distancing and paid leave.50 As Dr. Elise Gould, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute, notes, “Occupational discrimination has been with us forever.”51

A recent report released by the Urban Institute notes that based on data from 2018 representing 152.7 million workers, 31 percent of Hispanic workers and 33 percent of Black workers were in essential jobs that required them to work in person and close to others. By contrast, 26 percent of White workers had similar jobs.52 In New York City, currently 33 percent of the city’s frontline trucking, warehouse, and postal service workers are Black; 27 percent are Hispanic; and only 22 percent and 17 percent are White and Asian respectively.53

The CDC notes that essential work positions create a higher risk of exposure because “these types of jobs require frequent or close contact with the public or other workers, involve activities that cannot be done from home, and may lack benefits such as paid sick days.”54 Numerous studies confirm these findings, showing that during the pandemic, essential workers were more likely to be Black or Hispanic, have lower average incomes and education levels, lack health insurance and paid sick leave, and were more likely to report working outside the home and less likely to report social distancing and wearing masks indoors as compared to non-essential workers.55

Indeed, some studies even suggest that the “impact of work,”56 which has significantly driven down the median age of COVID-19 positive Black and Hispanic people as compared to White people, accounts for one of the main reasons for the disparities in coronavirus deaths.57 For example, one study concluded: “We believe that COVID-19 disparities will ultimately be shown to stem from disparities in exposure, such as the dimensions of employment and household transmission . . . . ”58 Another noted that “elevated occupational risk is a major driver of the disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and mortality experienced by Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic Americans.”59 Yet another stated: “Existing structural injustices will continue to shape racial disparities in this pandemic if essential workers are treated as expendable, and unless companies and governmental leaders prioritize workplace safety and protection as a matter of public health.”60

Black and Hispanic essential workers are particularly economically vulnerable and need reliable COVID-19 paid leave policies

In addition to the increased risks of exposure to COVID-19 Black and Hispanic people face on the job because of their overrepresentation as essential workers, many Black and Hispanic essential workers face increased risk of harm from COVID-19 because they are economically vulnerable and thus unable to take any leave from their jobs, particularly if doing so could cost them their employment.61

Indeed, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Black and Hispanic workers are less likely to have paid sick days as a benefit than White workers.62 As such, although Black and Hispanic workers have reported being significantly more concerned about the risk of infecting themselves and others at work than White workers, those fears must be weighed against concerns about earnings and job security.63 It is critical that essential workers—in general—and Black and Hispanic workers—in particular—have easy access to paid sick leave so that they do not have to make the difficult choice between staying home and losing income or going to work and exposing others to COVID-19.64

Warehousing employers must employ scientifically-proven COVID-19 mitigations

Implementing effective social distancing, hygiene, and paid sick leave measures in warehouses will undoubtedly reduce the deaths of essential workers and their families. This is illustrated by the trajectory of COVID-19 infection in Los Angeles County this past summer. For example, during a post Memorial Day weekend uptick in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles, four times as many Hispanic and twice as many Black Angelenos were dying than White Angelenos.65 Just two months later, death rates among Black and Hispanic people in Los Angeles had fallen by more than half.66 County officials attributed the remarkable decline to aggressive workplace health enforcement of social distancing and mask policies, including the creation of tip lines to report violations.67 

In the absence of effective public health mitigations, warehouse work is inherently highly dangerous. Moreover, the danger does not stop at the warehouse door. Rather, the risk is borne by the entire communities from which workers and their families reside and by those outside the communities with whom they interact. To minimize the undue risk for everyone, but most critically for Black and Hispanic communities that disproportionately staff warehouse work, it is critical for the warehousing industry to be accountable for the public health threats it creates.

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