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Los Angeles County officials have initiated a program that allows workers of color to speak up more easily about health-related issues. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

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Los Angeles County is making progress in better protecting its workers of color from the serious health effects of COVID-19.

They say they are doing this by arming workers with vital tools such as education, personal protective equipment, and an unabashed voice to point out potentially dangerous situations.

Los Angeles officials say their action has been a major factor in a recent decline in the amount of COVID-19 diagnoses in the Black and Latino working population.

According to a recently released Kaiser report, “During the upsurge of COVID cases that followed Memorial Day weekend family gatherings and business openings, Latinos in Los Angeles were dying at a rate more than four times higher than that of whites, while Blacks were twice as likely as whites to die of the disease.”

Two months later, the report says, death rates among Black and Latino people fell by more than half and were approaching the rate for white people.

Under Los Angeles County’s Workplace Public Health Council, hotlines were set up for workers to report concerns and minority worker groups were established to help guide workers and employers on how to make things safer for employees.

“It’s an amazing program in the way that it starts conversations where and when they need to be started, and empowers those who need to be with a voice,” said Dr. Ilan Shapiro, the medical director of health education and wellness at AltaMed Health Services, the nation’s largest community health center, headquartered in East Los Angeles.

AltaMed provides care to more than 300,000 people, mostly Latino and those living in underserved communities.

Why would workers of color be at more risk?

It traces back, experts say, pretty much to the start of our nation.

“Think about it: Who was doing the caregiving in our country all the way back?” Elise Gould, PhD, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute, told Healthline.

“In reality, this virus [and how it impacts workers of color] is just a reflection of decades of problems,” Shapiro told Healthline.

An AFL/CIO study released each year for the past 29 years called “Death on the Job: the Toll of Neglect” has outlined the vast chasm between injuries and death on the job for people of color versus others.

Minority workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), face limited access to healthcare, limits in education and income, may live in small and crowded quarters, and face discrimination on the job.

In addition, where many people work impacts their COVID-19 risks.

According to the CDC, minority workers are “disproportionately represented in essential work settings such as healthcare facilities, farms, factories, grocery stores, and public transportation.”

In other words, many work in jobs that not only cannot be done remotely, but also require face-to-face interaction with the public on a daily basis.

“Occupational discrimination has been with us forever,” said Gould, who authored a report on the subject.

COVID-19, she said, “magnified what was already the case.”

Rebecca Reindel, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO, agreed that the systematic risk to workers of color has always been present, but COVID-19 produced great disparities for working people of color in terms of safety.

“It’s pretty blatant,” she told Healthline.

Reindel pointed to the challenge of Black and brown workers often unable to voice concerns, either due to a language barrier or a fear of retaliation.

Daniel Kalish, managing partner of HKM Employment Attorneys in Seattle, said the ability to speak up is a major factor in workplace safety.

“Anyone would feel discouraged and worried about being a whistleblower,” Kalish told Healthline. “Companies tend to not like whistleblowers.”

For a minority worker, he said, speaking out could be even more stressful.

“They feel marginalized at the workplace already,” Kalish said. “They perceive — usually correctly — that they may be in even more danger of retaliation.”

That’s why the Los Angeles plan focuses so much on safe methods of communication.

The county initiated more than 2,000 investigations into workplace COVID-19 complaints in the month of July, said Tia Koonse, legal and policy research manager at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and a key member of the program.

“Eighty-five percent were non-compliant,” she told Healthline. “So basically, the enforcers are us, the frontline workers willing to speak up.”

Koonse said this is nothing new.

Studies the organization has done show that half of minority workers who have taken action such as speaking up about wages have faced retaliation.

These include the threat of job loss as well as the threat to report someone to immigration authorities.

“I have no reason to believe that is not the case with COVID-19 [complaints and reports] as well,” Koonse said. “We know employers are not going to be compliant.”

Los Angeles County worked with UCLA’s Labor Center and the University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center to study and respond to the situation.

The first step was to give workers a direct and private way to report worrisome situations.

Thousands of tips poured in, allowing the county to crack down on situations.

At the same time, Los Angeles County opted to make “health equality” a factor in reopening. That prevented any part of the county from moving forward until the most impacted were taken care of.

Next, they plan to help workers of color in businesses form councils as a way for employees to comfortably discuss workplace issues and communicate better overall with management.

The council setup, Koonse said, gives employees perhaps not used to speaking up a “strength in numbers feel.”

One man she met, who had lost his job and was now homeless after speaking up at a meat packing plant, told her that his situation might be different if the program had existed months ago.

There is resistance among employers.

Koonse said the Chamber of Commerce has come out strongly against the effort, saying it’s an open door for unions to get into workplaces.

“To that I say, if you are complying, who cares?” she said.

Kalish praises the effort and hopes it can be a long-term solution.

“COVID-19 has been a disaster for minority employees,” he said. “We will feel the repercussions for decades. That said, I do believe there could be some positives, and this council setup and the safety measures may be part of those positives.”

Shapiro explained that the opening up of communication in this way will take work on both sides, since some of the reason workers of color may not speak up in dangerous situations could be cultural.

“Particularly in the Latino community, there is a culture of having a lot of respect for the boss,” he said. “The same happens when they see doctors. They don’t tend to question authority as much. Starting a difficult conversation with someone they see as a boss type is not always natural for them.”

Plus, he said, the deep-rooted fear of losing work they need is real.

“Essential workers can be replaced quite easily,” Shapiro said, “and essential workers know that.”

The hotlines and councils, he said, “are amazing ways to start these conversations that need to happen and to empower those who need to be able to speak up.”

That, he said, will cut down on COVID-19 diagnoses not just in the workplace but throughout the nation.

“This process will save lives,” he said.

While the decrease in COVID-19 cases is a victory in itself, those who focus on workers of color hope this pandemic and its impact on workers helps the United States begin to take more aggressive steps toward workplace equality.

“The idea that workers could be fired for reporting [safety concerns] and the expectations that we now should have a safe way they can. Shouldn’t that always have been the case?” said Gould. “That should not be a monumental action.”

Among the potential changes, Gould said, are allowing more sick days during COVID-19, a practice she thinks should continue post-pandemic.

“Maybe all the time we should not force people to go to work when they are sick,” she said “We’ve had this information [on workplace inequality] for so long. Now it can be denied less, I guess. We know what’s going on. We just need to take action on it.”

“The pandemic has exposed systematic discrepancies,” said Reindel.

Reindel hopes that these changes can convince businesses to be more on top of tamping down the airborne qualities of viruses.

“You have those out there like ‘oh we are cleaning our surfaces X times a day,’” she said. “That’s not enough. We need all to have masks and proper social distancing.”

Long term, she hopes for even more.

“I would hope that businesses use this opportunity to become more prepared,” she said. “This is not a one-off thing. It will happen again and perhaps now, people will recognize that workplace safety for all helps control these things.”

Koonse said they’ve already been contacted by other major cities about how to implement a similar plan.

For now, she hopes this helps cut the spread as number climb, something that could benefit everyone as well as help the economy.

“The spread is happening now at workplaces and family gatherings,” she said. “If we can cut way down on the workplace spread, that’s cutting it all in half.”

“I think this is all very important to us long term,” added Shapiro. “We will have more pandemics. It will come and if we don’t have changes, shame on us.”