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‘Treat Them As They're Essential’: Latino Construction Workers Face High Risk On Job Site

File photo of construction workers at a work site.
astrid westvang
File photo of construction workers at a work site.

Juan José Mejia Guillén is considered an essential worker in North Carolina. He runs a small construction company, Olive and Sage Custom Building, LLC. With nearly 15 years of experience, the master carpenter is confident about his work.
“I can build a whole house — interior, exterior with no problem,” he said. But since the pandemic, doing that work has become a lot riskier. “In general, we’re just scared. And we’re just flipping a coin [of] ‘hopefully I don’t get sick today.’ And we continue to expose ourselves.”
As of July 5, Hispanic North Carolinians make up 46% of COVID-19 cases statewide, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services — a stark figure considering Hispanics represent only 10% of the state’s overall population. In Durham, where Mejia lives and works, the relative impact of the coronavirus on Latinx residents is even greater, with 67% of cases attributed to a group representing 13% of the total population.

State health officials have identified the construction industry, where many Hispanics work, as one of the “environments where social distancing can be challenging.”

Department of Health and Human Services State Health Director Dr. Betsey Tilson called construction sites “high-risk” for the transmission of the coronavirus with officials seeing “more and more clusters in construction,” according to the News & Observer.

For Mejia, the biggest challenge of going to a worksite every day is securing the protective equipment for himself and others.

“We don’t have N95 [masks, you know,] the real ones that help protect people,” he said, adding that instead, he dons a thin surgical mask and avoids talking when he is forced to work closely to others.

Juan José Mejia Guillén (right) with his wife Erin L. Krauss (left) and 1-year-old daughter, Olivia Sage Mejia (center).
Credit Courtesy of Juan José Mejia Guillén
Juan José Mejia Guillén (right) with his wife Erin L. Krauss (left) and one-year-old daughter, Olivia Sage Mejia (center).

Access To Information

Toward the beginning of the pandemic, Mejia was taking contracts on big job sites, working in close contact with others. When the dangers of that work became clear, he opted for jobs where he could head his own team and control the environment.

“I [would] tell them, ‘Don’t talk to me close if you don’t have a mask. I got a mask and you have to respect my space,'" Meija said.

Mejia says there are significant problems with access to Spanish-language information from official sources in this state. He says the basic information is accessible, but to get a better grasp of the science behind the virus, he depends on webcast briefings from the Mexican health ministry instead of local North Carolina sources.

Eliazar Posada, the director of Community Engagement and Advocacy at El Centro Hispano agrees that it’s been challenging for the Latinx community to access comprehensive and culturally-appropriate information about the virus beyond official state briefings.

“A lot of information coming was not provided in Spanish. And there was already a mistrust of information coming from government, specifically in the South, not just North Carolina,” Posada said.

Community Solutions

On June 26, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced significant funding to try to address the health disparity in the Hispanic community. Five local North Carolina organizations were awarded $100,000 each to “help support disease prevention measures in high-risk Hispanic/Latinx communities.”

Posada’s organization is one of the recipients. He says they’ll be using the funding to boost access to culturally-appropriate Spanish language information. The organization has launched a public information initiative calledNC Unida Contra El Virus as part of that goal.

Two other priorities are providing testing and medical access for community members in Spanish and providing basic assistance for those struggling to pay rent and feed their families.

Posada echoes Mejia’s big concern, that the workers who need it most, don’t have access to high-quality protective equipment.

"We need to make sure that at the same time we're telling them that they're essential, we treat them as they're essential," Posada said. "And we treat them with the respect that they deserve, by giving them the personal protective equipment that they need, and ensuring that whatever work conditions they’re in, they are remaining safe."

Mejia has some additional ideas for how to keep Latinx construction workers safe. He says it starts with information. Namely, he wants workers to know which specific construction sites have outbreaks and what the work dynamic was on that job site. The state does not publicly disclose the location of construction sites with outbreaks.

"Where are those [infected] people coming from?" Mejia asks. "From the big buildings in downtown Durham? From the big developers that are building mansions? Or from subcontractors like me that do, you know, little jobs?"

Beyond that, Mejia thinks state health employees need to meet workers where they are, he suggests home repair stores as a good place to distribute information to the Latinx community.

“I go to Home Depot and I go to Lowe's and I go to different little building supply stores and I see all my people there, all my people," he says. "Everybody’s still working.”

Ultimately, Mejia and other construction professionals want to keep working to provide for their families. In Mejia’s case, that’s his wife and 1-year-old daughter, Olivia Sage — the inspiration for the name of his contracting company.

"We have to ensure that our community is going to be able to fulfill their dreams," Posada said. "[And] at the same time, be able to live those dreams, which means we need to protect our workers."

Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
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