The impacts of external factors on health also deeply influence community health in the context of workplaces. Chicanx and Latinx people are over-represented in industries that include a high risk of workplace exposure to toxic chemicals, such as agriculture, gardening, cleaning, construction, and food service. Vulnerability to this exposure is made worse by language barriers and exploitation of legal and immigration status. Required safety procedures, training, and materials are often provided in English and not translated or interpreted into other languages. Further, even when the dangers of poor working conditions are well known and understood, employers may refuse to provide proper safety equipment or adjust the workplace setting and instead threaten the workers’ legal status to coerce compliance. You can review more about the advocacy around workers’ rights and health in Chapter 7: Social Movement Activity.
COVID-19 and Chicanx and Latinx Workers’ Health
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the topic of workers’ health and safety became a question of national discussion and policymaking. Employers and politicians constructed the category of essential work to describe the people whose jobs contribute directly to the daily basic functioning of society, most of whom would be categorized as low-income and working-class workers, including agricultural workers, retail clerks in grocery stores, pharmacies, and supply stores, and maintenance workers. These individuals were asked to continue to work and expose themselves to a potentially lethal disease in order to ensure the ongoing comfort and stability of society as a whole. The image in Figure 9.4.1 shows the representation of Black and Brown workers in retail, farmwork, logistics, sanitation, and office work who were deemed “essential” and continued working during the most dangerous parts of the pandemic. The image includes the words, “My heart overflows with gratitude for the workers giving us life.”
Corporations sought to frame these workers as “heroes” in order to place a symbolic value on this sacrifice without providing any policy or economic redress. However, labor unions, workers’ organizations, and liberal politicians advocated for employers to be required to provide safety equipment, paid sick time, and protections for workers who exercised their rights. However, despite these efforts, Chicanx and Latinx communities were still disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 infection rates. Migrant communities, who were already more likely to be exposed to chemicals and working conditions that deteriorate respiratory health, were put into the position of risking infection and their own health and that of their families to continue feeding the world. In Figure 9.4.2, an activist artist has crafted an image of recognition and gratitude, with a Latina farmworker carrying a box of tomatoes surrounded by palm fronds and the words “Migrant Womxn Feed the World” written across the produce box.
The COVID-19pandemic also reflected many recurring and long-term barriers to healthcare, including a lack of healthcare providers in Chicanx and Latinx communities, skepticism of physicians, and the exclusion of immigrants and non-English speakers from health resources.50 This has led to not only higher rates of COVID-19 infection among Chicanx and Latinx communities but also increased risk of hospitalization, serious symptoms, and death. Even after the virus has been declared endemic by the CDC, these overall barriers have continued to disparately impact Chicanx and Latinx communities, who are more likely to live and work in densely populated environments and be subjected to continuous controls like mandated mask-wearing in retail, food service, cleaning, and healthcare settings.
50 Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick, “Movement Pandemic Adaptability: Health Inequity and Advocacy among Latinx Immigrant and Indigenous Peoples,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19, no. 15 (2022): 8981.