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How The Pandemic Has Affected The Latino Community In L.A.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The pandemic has taken the lives of every kind of person. But in California, Latinos are dying from the coronavirus far more than others. A poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard shows that in LA, the vast majority of Latino families have serious financial problems. Here's Jackie Fortier of KPCC.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Working as a fast food cashier in LA, Juan Cassata (ph) spends a lot of his time telling customers how to wear a mask.

JUAN CASSATA: They cover their mouth but not their nose. And we're like, you got to put your mask on right.

FORTIER: Cassata didn't expect to be enforcing mask-wearing. Six months ago, he was a restaurant manager making $30 an hour, working full-time and saving for retirement. But when LA county health officials shut down most restaurants in March, Cassata lost his job. The only work he can find now pays a lot less and is part-time.

CASSATA: I only work three hours or four hours rather than eight or 10, 12, like I used to work.

FORTIER: Cassata doesn't know anyone who's gotten COVID-19. But the pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of his life.

CASSATA: I'm just draining my savings, draining and draining and draining. I mean, I had to sell my car. Uber is a luxury.

FORTIER: Cassata is one of hundreds of people who responded to a new NPR poll. It found a whopping 71% of Latino households in LA have experienced serious financial problems during the pandemic. Like Cassata, many of them are burning through their savings and are having a hard time paying for necessities like food.

DAVID HAYES-BAUTISTA: But we have to remember that Latino poverty is a little bit different from what people think.

FORTIER: David Hayes-Bautista is a professor of medicine at UCLA.

HAYES-BAUTISTA: In Washington, the idea is you're poor because you don't work. That's not the issue with Latinos. Latinos work, but they're poor. The problem is we don't pay them.

FORTIER: Latinos have the highest rate of labor force participation of any group in California. So when officials shut down most businesses, Latinos, like everyone else, lost jobs. But, he says, Latinos got back to work faster.

HAYES-BAUTISTA: In April, the Latino rate bounced right back up and actually has continued to increase slowly, whereas the non-Latino rate is dropping. The reward that Latinos have for their high work ethic is also the high rate of poverty.

FORTIER: That work ethic has also led to a much higher rate of COVID-19. Because Latinos dominate essential jobs that make them more exposed to the coronavirus, they now account for 60% of the COVID cases in California even though they're about 40% of the population. Not only are they getting infected in California, there's been a five-fold increase in working-aged Latinos dying from the coronavirus since May.

HAYES-BAUTISTA: These are workers usually in their prime years, peak earning power and everything else. Those are the ones who are being hit hardest. That's pretty worrying.

FORTIER: Another worry, no health insurance. Mariel Alvarez (ph) lost her job and, as a consequence, her health insurance in March. Her only hope for health insurance is to find a job with benefits. The pandemic has created a big need for one job, contact tracers. She completed a certificate online.

MARIEL ALVAREZ: So I took that time to actually do that. And I'm applying for a contact tracer job right now.

FORTIER: Getting a job with health insurance is crucial for Alvarez because she doesn't qualify for any state or federal support. She's undocumented and was brought to the U.S. by her parents as a child. She has a permit that allows her to work and defers deportation under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

ALVAREZ: 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.

FORTIER: Alvarez says, in the meantime, she hopes she'll get the job. And she'll do her best not to get sick.

For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "INDIGO OF THE KINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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