The pandemic made Latino workers essential. Now they’re fighting for better conditions.

Pedro Carrillo, back left, with SEIU members who participated in the Fast for Freedom event, including Veronica Lagunas, front right. Courtesy of the Service Employees International Union.

Pedro Carrillo scrubbed every floor of a 33-story building in Denver during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. He disinfected each level to ensure the safety of the people working in that building.

But when it came to his own safety, Carrillo said, his employer only provided him with one mask to protect himself from the virus.

“I work five days a week, Monday through Friday, working eight hours a day with just one mask. I had to wash it at home everyday so I could wear it again the next day,” Carrillo, who has worked as a day porter since moving to the U.S. from Mexico nearly two decades ago, said in Spanish. “It wasn’t enough.”

Like Carrillo, countless Latino workers were among the class of workers deemed essential during the pandemic, consequently facing an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. Now these workers are finding ways to leverage their status as essential workers to advocate for better working conditions and labor protections that they hope will last well beyond the global health emergency.

Many of these workers have turned to labor unions for help, contributing to a nationwide boom in organized labor.

Pedro Carrillo speaking on his story as an undocumented essential worker at a Fast for Freedom event. Courtesy of the Service Employees International Union.

Carrillo is a member of SEIU Local 105, one of the fastest-growing unions in Colorado representing over 8,000 healthcare, janitorial, security, and airport workers throughout the state. The union chapter Carrillo has belonged to for 14 years is part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents about two million workers nationwide.

As the nation continues to recover from the ongoing pandemic, local chapters of the union have continued to advocate for paid sick time and leave, for workers to earn time and a half for essential labor during a public health crisis and access to proper personal protective equipment.

“Unions have proven that they are strong vehicles for economic empowerment for communities of color,” said Ryan Zamarripa, the associate director of Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research and advocacy organization.

Veronica Lagunas, a Salvadoran janitor working in Los Angeles, agrees. The 42-year-old mother said she felt empowered to advocate for worker’s rights and push for fair labor laws after joining the SEIU’s United Service Workers West 15 years ago.

She remembers getting on her knees to clean a men’s urinal while she was pregnant with her daughter. When Lagunas told her supervisor that she wouldn’t be able to complete the task, she said her supervisor laughed and told her, “It’s your work. If you don’t like it, then join a union.”

So, she did.

“I decided to read and get more involved,” Lagunas said. “That is what motivated me — to learn more about how the union functioned and how to help my coworkers.”

Both Lagunas and Zamarripa have been advocating for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or the PRO Act, which seeks to expand certain labor protections related to employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace.

In Zamarripa’s view, the bill should be passed in order “to combat the assault on worker power our country has been experiencing.”

Exposure on the front lines

More than half of Latinos in the U.S. workforce have jobs that require them to be on-site and in close proximity to others, effectively limiting their ability to practice the kind of physical distance public health officials deemed necessary amid surging coronavirus infections.

At least 31 percent of these jobs were deemed essential during the pandemic, according to a report from the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Latinos account for 85 percent of all farmworkers, 59 percent of the country’s construction crews, 53 percent of all employees in food services and 39 percent of the nation’s total workforce.

“Through the pandemic we knew these social determinants of health and inequities were out there to begin with, but with COVID, it just really put a spotlight on these issues,” Dr. Amelie Ramirez, director of Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio, a national organization focused on promoting health policies through research-based culturally relevant content for Latinos.

Many Latinos live in multi-generational homes in densely populated areas and have limited access to quality health care. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Hispanics have the highest uninsured rates of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S.

“Housing inequities, lower education level completions in our community health, lack of access to health care, a large portion of our population not having health insurance, transportation, discrimination — all of these things put an unequal burden on our community,” Ramirez said. 

As the worst of the pandemic faded and cities began to ease pandemic-era restrictions, Latino essential workers such as Lagunas have continued to push to improve working conditions in the janitorial industry.

She focused on expanding the work of her coalition Ya Basta!, which she co-founded two years ago, in an effort to address workplace safety for women vulnerable to experiencing sexual violence while on the job. As a “promotora,” she leads three training sessions a week, teaching other janitors and supervisors how to identify and stop harassment, assault and rape in the workplace.

“You have to know what problems exist in your company and find solutions with your employees,”  Lagunas said. “The most important thing and the thing that our union has managed well is having the ability to listen to workers.”

 Veronica Lagunas with her son, Alex, at the Fast for Freedom event. Courtesy of the Service Employees International Union.

Since becoming an essential worker, Carrillo has been urging lawmakers in Congress to provide a pathway to U.S. citizenship for undocumented workers like him who became indispensable during the pandemic. He hopes that this will make it easier for some Latinos workers to receive government unemployment benefits and visit loved ones in their native countries. 

“I fight for my people,” Carrillo said. “I fight for the people who are scared of expressing their concerns. I will keep fighting until the 11 million people that are in the shade can see the light and leave the dark.”

Maya Brown is a senior at Stony Brook University, where she studies journalism and political science. She is an intern on the social team at NBC Universal and has previously worked for CNN, WSHU Public Radio and the Long Island Herald. She hopes to pursue a career in political reporting. Reach her at mayaabrown10 [at] aol [dot] com and on Twitter @mayaabrown10.

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