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Essential workers accounted for 87% of additional COVID-19 deaths in California, data shows

Researchers with the UC Merced Community and Labor Center analyzed the pandemic’s toll on “high-risk” industries between March 2020 and December 2020.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Essential workers across 10 industries in California saw a 30% increase in deaths during the first 10 months of the coronavirus pandemic, according to UC Merced’s analysis of public health data.

Researchers with UC Merced Community and Labor Center analyzed the pandemic’s toll on “high-risk” industries between March 2020 and December 2020. That analysis found a 25% increase in deaths among Californians aged 18-65 compared to the same time period in 2019.

That 25% translated to an additional 14,370 deaths. Of those deaths, however, 87% came from low-wage, essential workers, with the largest percentage year-over-year increases in workers in warehouses and agriculture jobs, according to the data.

The 10 industries analyzed by UC Merced researchers, in descending order from the highest percentage increase in additional deaths, included warehousing, agriculture, bars, food processing, wholesale trade, restaurants/food service, nursing care, landscaping, grocery, and building services.

The analysis found that many of the industries with the highest pandemic-related deaths also employed more immigrants or non-US citizens. Those high-risk workers also tended to live in larger households, more likely to have children, and more likely to include multiple families living under the same roof.

Researchers say the data “indicates a vulnerable workforce” and they call for increased worker and public education into the matter as well as stronger enforcement of workplace laws. They also call for more funding and staffing to the agencies that regulate workplace safety, especially staffing that “reflect the many languages spoken by workers in California’s high-risk industries.”

“Public education and outreach to low-wage, immigrant, non-citizen workers should emphasize their rights as workers, workplace health and safety hazards and protections, to ensure safer workplaces,” researchers said in the report.

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