Nevada’s army of essential workers have not only kept the wheels of daily life going for all Nevadans, they’ve helped the state maintain the look and feel of normalcy during a global pandemic and an historic budget shortfall in the state.
They are the staff in grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies. They work in janitorial services, public transit, trucking, warehouses and postal services. They assist with health care, child care and social services, and, combined, they have been identified as working on the “frontlines” of the pandemic in a newly published report by Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, an independent, bi-partisan institute.
These essential workers are exposed to COVID-19 more than most Nevadans, the report found. A majority of these workers are from Black, Asian and Latino communities, and they are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus disease in both death rates and rates of infection.
“While it is too soon to assess the full extent of the impacts of COVID-19, historical data indicate that communities of color tend to be disproportionately affected by economic crises,” the report noted.
Who are the essential workers?
About 60% of the state’s total workforce are included in the essential category. The pandemic has worked like a double-edged sword for these people-focused and service-oriented jobs.
Those who lost jobs have found themselves without employee-supported health insurance, benefits and wages. The retail, tourism, gambling and food services industries employ more than one-half million people in the state and have reported 37% of the state’s total unemployment. Workers from communities of color have also lost jobs in greater numbers than their white colleagues, the report found.
And those who still have jobs are on the receiving end of COVID-19 like few others in the state. The pandemic showed that it is possible to transition many job roles online. While many Nevadans–mostly whites and a section of Asians and Blacks with college educations and above–have been able to telework, essential workers were not able to work remotely.
Because people without an undergraduate education account for a large portion of the frontline industries, the communities where most adults have less than a Bachelor’s degree, such as the Latino (less than 12% as of 2018), American Indian (less than 12%) and Black communities (about 17%), saw many of their members working as essential employees.
These essential workers are more exposed to the virus than their neighbors, such as whites with at least a Bachelor or higher degree (about 27%), and some Asians (38%). As COVID-19 continues to upend lives of millions of Nevadans, the essential workers have continued to provide services.
Everyone’s hit by the pandemic, people of color more so
Racial representation in frontline industries is one of the signifiers of how people of color are being exposed to the virus more than their white counterparts, who comprise less than half of the frontline workforce even though they account for nearly 50% of the population. People of color are “over-represented” in the frontline industries, according to the report.
Asians make up 10.8% of the Silver State workforce, but they account for 14% of the workforce in frontline industries, and 19.3% of employment in the health care industry.
Blacks account for 8.5% of Nevada’s workforce, but 10% of the workforce in frontline industries and 24% of those employed in the public transit industry.
Latinos account for 28.3% of Nevada’s workforce, 26% of employment in frontline industries and 62.5% in janitorial industries.
Realities for these populations are vastly different from those of their white counterparts. Many of them make less than the mandated hourly wage in the state, said the report. Many are foreign born and have fled from their home countries in search of a better life and are in Nevada illegally. Their immigration situation makes them easier prey for exploitation in the workplace.
Most don’t have insurance. Those who do have at least some form of insurance often find it inadequate, as they lack access to a dedicated health care provider.
Underlying health conditions among workers from these communities, such as heart and respiratory diseases, as well as diabetes and obesity, make them susceptible to COVID-19 infection.
Also, people of color have a harder time getting medical attention, the report noted. Language barriers also play a role. Many stay away from testing centers or hospitals for fear of being reported and fail to disclose if they have symptoms.
Washoe County Health District has said repeatedly that it recognizes the fear among the undocumented communities and people without an insurance. Its health officials suspect that there is a possibility that the virus may be spreading undetected within these already vulnerable communities.
COVID deaths among races
As of Aug. 25, 2020, there have been 1,250 COVID-19 deaths in Nevada, according to the report. (There have been 1,376 deaths since Sept. 5, after the report was made public.) And, when one compares white, Black, Indigenous and communities of color, it becomes apparent that some in communities of color are dying at a disproportionate rate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention observed that on a national level, Blacks and Latinos have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people. A similar observation applies to Nevada.
“Whites account for 51.3 percent of deaths, which is roughly equivalent to their representation in the population,” the Guinn Center reported. “Latinos, which represent 30.0 percent of Nevada’s population, account for 22.2 percent of deaths. American Indians represent 1.1 percent of Nevada’s population and account for 0.9 percent of COVID-19 deaths.”
But Asians account for 12.4% of deaths and represent 9.9% of Nevada’s population, while Blacks account for 11.9% of deaths but comprise 8.9% of the population.
“In Nevada, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color. Latinos in Nevada have contracted COVID-19 in the greatest numbers relative to their share of the population,” the Guinn Center noted. “African Americans were hospitalized for COVID-19 related illness at the highest rates in Clark County. African Americans and Asians have died from COVID-19 at higher rates relative to their respective shares of the population.”
The Guinn Center said effort should be made to ensure equal access to health resources and educational opportunities for people of color.
“Nevada should prioritize communities of color when allocating COVID-19 testing resources and treatments (and vaccines, when available). Such efforts include addressing barriers to testing and care and employing culturally informed engagement and contact tracing approaches,” the Guinn Center recommended. “Nevada’s decision makers should explore ways to restore and prioritize state funding for critical health services and higher education programs that expand access to preventative care and treatment and support dislocated and essential workers.”
Nevada’s decision makers should leverage federal funding to ensure workplace protections and prioritize and expand access to free COVID-19 testing and treatment for essential, frontline workers, the report recommended.
This is the first in a series of reports by This Is Reno on a new report by the Guinn Center, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Communities of Color in Nevada,” released Sept. 2, 2020.
Correction: Whites make up nearly 50% of Nevada’s population, not 60% as originally stated in the article.
Sudhiti (Shu) Naskar is a multimedia journalist and researcher who has years of experience covering international issues. In the role of a journalist, she has covered gender, culture, society, environment, and economy. Her works have appeared on BBC, The National, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Reno Gazette-Journal, Caravan and more. Her interests lie in the intersection of art, politics, social justice, education, tech, and culture. She took a sabbatical from media to attend graduate school at the University of Nevada Reno in 2017. In this period, she has won awards, represented her school at an international conference and successfully defended her thesis on political disinformation at the Reynolds School of Journalism where she earned her Master’s in Media Innovation.