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COVID death rates in some occupations higher among workers of color

Workers' advocates have sought higher vaccine priority for essential workers, including grocery workers.
Workers' advocates have sought higher vaccine priority for essential workers, including grocery workers.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Latino workers in food prep and serving jobs in Massachusetts died of COVID-19 at a rate eight times higher than that of white workers in the same occupations between March and July. The mortality rate of Black health care support workers was three times higher than that of their white counterparts during that time.

Overall, Latino and Black workers in Massachusetts in all occupations had age-adjusted mortality rates more than four times higher than that of white workers in the first five months of the pandemic, according to a report published this week in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

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The report — by occupational health researchers at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and an independent researcher in Cambridge — studied 555 deaths due to COVID-19 among Massachusetts workers ages 16-64, between March and July.

Male employees also had nearly twice the mortality rate for COVID as female employees.

A September report by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health found that at least 59 workers in Massachusetts had died of COVID-19 after potentially being exposed on the job. The current study demonstrates that exposure is more likely among workers in certain occupations, but does not draw the conclusion that the deaths were due to exposure on the job.

In 11 of the major occupation groups in the recent study, employees had higher mortality rates than the rates for all workers. The highest was in health care support, led by nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides; followed by transportation and material moving, with taxi drivers and chauffeurs suffering the highest death rates; food prep and serving, led by cooks; and workers in cleaning and maintenance, production, and construction.

A number of factors could be contributing to elevated mortality rates in these occupations, said Devan Hawkins, the MCPHS public health instructor who led the study. Not only do these jobs have higher risk of exposure, the workers who perform them are less likely to have health insurance and may have higher comorbidities, live in cities with higher infection rates, and make relatively low wages, leading them to live in more crowded conditions and eat less healthy food.

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“This really emphasizes the fact that work is an important contributor to this pandemic,” he said, noting that deaths are “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“The cost of treatment and lost wages and the impact on people’s’ families and their psychological health should not be borne solely by the workers, but by their employers.”

Hawkins cautioned that there is “statistical uncertainty” about the magnitude of race-related differences, given the study’s small sample size. Among food-prep deaths, for instance, there were only 13 Latino workers and nine white workers. But the disparities are real.

A similar study out of the University of California San Francisco on occupation-related COVID-19 death rates in California also found elevated mortality rates among people of color.

The report’s findings confirm what MassCOSH has been “screaming from the top of our lungs,” said executive director Jodi Sugerman-Brozan: “Workplace exposure is killing people, and workplace exposure is a key means through which the virus is spreading.”

The fact that Black and Latino workers are dying at higher rates than white workers in the same jobs further exposes the racial injustices that people of color are facing during the pandemic, she said.

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The state should be doing a better job protecting workers, guaranteeing people paid time off when they’re sick, and tracking workplace cases, Sugerman-Brozan said. Essential workers should also be given higher priority for vaccines. Instead of digging into the role workplace transmission plays, however, she said, Governor Charlie Baker has been putting the blame on individual behavior such as household gatherings. (People’s occupations are supposed to be included on COVID test results, but not their industry or employer).

“What that fails to address is: how did it get in the household in the first place?” she said. “It’s pretty obvious that work for a lot of people is playing a pretty significant role.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.