Financial and health risks of COVID-19 disproportionately affect N.C. Latinx population

Financial and health risks of COVID-19 disproportionately affect N.C. Latinx population

Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez is a reporter with the NC News Intern Corps.

Julia Pimentel Gudiel helps cook tinga de pollo, a traditional Mexican dish, at the home of her friend Elizabeth Cacho. Photo by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

Julia Pimentel Gudiel came to North Carolina from Guatemala for her children.

While her four kids stayed in her home country, Pimentel Gudiel came to the U.S. to earn money, which she sends back to the rest of her family.

But with the slowdown in business caused by COVID-19, Pimentel Gudiel, who used to work as much as 75 hours per week, said she sometimes struggles to pay all her expenses because her hours have been drastically cut.

“Sometimes, I’m left with nothing,” she said.

Pimentel Gudiel is one of thousands of Latinx people across the U.S. who have had their hours or pay cut in the midst of the pandemic – or lost their jobs altogether.

An April study by Pew Research Center said 61% of Latinx adults reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This is a much greater percentage than both Black adults and white adults surveyed. Forty-four percent of white people and 38% of Black people reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut due to the pandemic.

In an even more recent study of May unemployment figures, Pew reported that the unemployment rate for Latinx women was 19.5%, the highest among men and women of the country’s major racial and ethnic groups.

The next highest groups were Black women, 17.2%; Asian women, 16.7%; and Black men, 15.8%.

Pimentel Gudiel said she lost her job at Venable Rotisserie Bistro in Carrboro because business decreased. Mediterranean Deli, where she works making pita bread, also cut her to 25 hours a week from her usual 45, she said.

With a salary of $10 an hour, Pimentel Gudiel said she cannot afford to send as much money home to her family as she used to.

“Having payments to make both here and in Guatemala, that’s what hurts the most,” she said. “My mom is still in Guatemala and I help her out with money, but right now I can’t with so many payments.”

Elizabeth Cacho, who works at both Cosmic Cantina and Italian Pizzeria III in Chapel Hill, said her hours have also been cut.

At Cosmic Cantina, where she works in the kitchen, Cacho said she was cut down to two days from her usual four days a week.

She usually sells tamales, a traditional Mexican food, to her friends and acquaintances to make extra money in hard times, but because the price of meat and other ingredients has risen, she can’t afford to make them.

“If I raise the price of the tamales, nobody will buy them,” Cacho said.

Despite her hours getting cut at Cosmic Cantina, she still has bills to pay, including her daughter’s college tuition at Appalachian State University and the $900 per month rent for her daughter’s apartment.

Cacho said, luckily, her boss at Cosmic Cantina said he is not planning to fire any employees, and her other job, Italian Pizzeria III, has not cut her hours at all.

While losing work poses a financial risk, working poses a significant health risk, especially for workers who are in close contact with other people.

An independent study by The News and Observer and Enlace Latino found that as of June 1, more than 10,000 Latinx people were infected with COVID-19 across 45 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

North Carolina data for the number of Latinx people infected with COVID-19 is incomplete, but according to the study, some North Carolina counties, such as Forsyth, Burke and Durham have reported that a large percentage of their infected are Latinx.

Though Latinx people make up a large percentage of those infected with the virus, they make up a small portion of each county’s total residents.

In Forsyth County, around 68% of people infected with COVID-19 were Latinx, but they make up 13% of its residents. In Burke County around 66% of infected people were Latinx while only 6% of residents are Latinx. And in Durham County around 61% of the people infected with COVID-19 were Latinx, while they account for only 14% of residents.

Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, a primary care doctor and associate professor at Duke University, said Hispanic people are likely getting infected at high rates because many of their jobs were deemed “essential” when Gov. Roy Cooper announced a stay-at-home order in March.

Essential jobs included “food and beverage production” as well as construction and landscaping, which are often filled by Latinx workers.

These workers are more likely to be infected because of their close contact with customers or other workers, Martinez-Bianchi said. But once they are infected, Hispanic people sometimes don’t get the help they need, she said.

“In a country with tremendous health resources, we have a group of people, a large segment of the population — the Latinx community — that doesn’t have access to health care, that doesn’t have a primary care clinician,” Martinez-Bianchi said.

In spite of the staggering infection rate for Hispanic people in North Carolina, Pimentel Gudiel said she wants to continue working. “I need to leave the house because if I don’t leave, no opportunities are going to come my way,” she said. “I have to take the risk.”

She said she wants to go back to Guatemala and be with her family someday, but she can’t until she feels she has saved enough money.

When students come back to UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall, Pimentel Gudiel said she hopes businesses will earn enough money to begin hiring again.

Until then, she said she will weather the crisis as best she can.

“We trust God that this will pass, and life will go on.”

NC News Intern Corps is a program of the NC Local News Workshop, funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and housed at Elon University’s School of Communications.