Analysis shows pandemic’s toll on California high-risk workers

Workers in 10 California industries experienced an over 30% increase in deaths during the first 10 months of the pandemic, according to a UC Merced Community and Labor Center (CLC) analysis of state public health data.


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The analysis found that during that time, deaths among Californians ages 18-65 increased by 25%. Workers accounted for 87% of those additional deaths — 12,500 of 14,370.

The 10 California industries, which are considered “high risk,” are warehousing, agriculture, bars, food processing, wholesale trade, restaurants/food services, nursing care, landscaping, grocery and building services


Image: UC Merced


The state has also identified the industries at high risk of COVID-19 spread. These include agriculture, food processing, grocery or retail, restaurants or food services and warehouse or logistics.

Warehouse workers had the highest statewide increase in pandemic-related deaths, at 57%. Between March and December 2020, 334 more warehouse workers died than in the same period in 2019. Agricultural workers ranked second with 565 additional deaths. Employees in food supply chain industries made up four of the 10 industries with the highest increase in deaths. 


Image: UC Merced


Many of these sectors have traditionally had high rates of migrant workers — from food chain industries, building services, landscaping to nursing facilities. A prior analysis found these high-risk workers, compared with those in non-high-risk sectors, were far more likely to be immigrants, particularly non-citizens.

This prior research also suggested that these high-risk workers were likely to have multiple families living under the same roof, or be multi-generational. California’s high-risk workers also earned lower wages, had lower home ownership rates and experienced higher rates of poverty.

Ana Padilla, executive director of CLC, said she hopes this analysis of increases in pandemic-era deaths in high-risk industries will help increase the amount of worker education and employer compliance.

“The increased rate of pandemic-related deaths among high-risk workers indicates a vulnerable workforce and suggests the need for more worker education and enforcement of worker rights. Education and outreach to low-wage immigrant, non-citizen workers should emphasize their rights as workers, workplace health and safety hazards and protections. Access to the same worker benefits and resources that workers who are citizens receive is also critical for preventing the spread of COVID-19.”

Dr. Edward Flores, co-director of the CLC and sociology professor, said he hopes this research will strengthen the enforcement of workplace laws throughout all job sectors.

“Public agencies regulating workplace health and safety should be adequately funded and staffed to ensure robust enforcement of workplace health and safety standards across all industries, particularly those continuing to pose a high risk of COVID-19 spread. Agency staffing should also reflect the many languages spoken by workers in California’s high-risk industries.”