The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley Gomez is a Ph.D. candidate of public health at Brown University. As a Hazeltine Fellow at Brown, Gomez started researching the health of immigrant Latinas based in Providence and New York City, and how it’s related to their socio-economic statuses. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Gomez found that while stories surrounding the health risks of doctors and nurses have largely been in the spotlight throughout the pandemic, home health care workers, who are largely Latinx, are often overlooked despite their heightened risk for contracting COVID-19.
Gomez was also awarded a research grant from the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Brown, the Nora Kahn Piore Award at Brown’s School of Public Health, and she is also a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research Scholar.
Q: Can you briefly explain what your research is about?
Gomez: My research looks at the health of immigrant Latinas. I focus on areas where Latinas are overrepresented -- home health care and entrepreneurship. Home care is one of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S., where Latinas bear the greatest workforce burden. A majority of home care workers also live in poverty. It’s no surprise that many home care workers also have second jobs, some entrepreneurs, in order to provide for their families. We also know that the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) largely failed diverse small business owners.
I’m interested in hearing about their everyday lived experience and how their occupation interacts with other social determinants of health, such as access to health care and other economic opportunities. This is especially important because the women who work in these areas are at increased risk of COVID-19, where they are not able to work from home. The 1-on-1 interviews I conduct further explore how COVID-19 has impacted immigrant Latinas’ health, businesses, and work conditions in their own words.
Q: Why did you decide to compare Providence to the Greater New York City area?
Gomez: Providence and New York City each have large populations of Latinxs, about 30 percent and 28 percent, respectively. The current pandemic has had a disparate impact among Latinxs in both cities, where Latinxs continue to account for a majority of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. This disparity is not due to biological difference, but rather the socio-environmental conditions Latinxs are subjected to, one of which is work. I am very interested in seeing how the lived-experiences compare across the nation’s most populous city and smallest state.
Q: Based on your findings so far, how do they compare?
Gomez: There are many more similarities among the experiences of immigrant Latinas living in Providence and New York City than there are differences. All of the women I interviewed proudly care for others through their job as home care workers and/or by providing food, cleaning, and other services to the general public, as entrepreneurs. Yet, when asked who takes care and provides services for them, they say themselves. They often prioritize the needs and care of their clients and families over their own.
Q: During your research, how has COVID-19 impacted these immigrant Latinas in their health, business, and working conditions?
Gomez: Amongst entrepreneurs, several Latinas noted having to shut down their businesses due to the government restrictions. This inevitably had a negative financial impact on their business, household, and employees. Unfortunately, not all small business owners were able to obtain a PPP loan to keep them afloat. Other entrepreneurs continued offering goods and services while taking all the safety precautions they could and changed their business model to include online services, where possible. Business owners who are continuing to operate with employees have been doing their best to urge their workers to engage in frequent COVID-19 testing and say they will encourage employees to get vaccinated, while still respecting their autonomy to make that decision.
Among home care workers there’s a general consensus that not going into work was not an option. Agencies that employ them give them the “choice” on whether or not to take on certain clients, often not stating whether or not the client has COVID-19. For most home care workers, it is not viewed as a choice, but rather a risk deemed necessary for survival. Nonetheless, workers who belong to SEIU 1199, the largest healthcare union in the U.S., praised the union for providing them information with regard to their safety and rights. On the other hand, there are still many workers who were left out of and remain ineligible for any sort of economic relief due to their migration status.
Q: What types of policy will you be advocating for, because of your findings, that relate to ethnic entrepreneurship and the health of immigrants?
Gomez: Regardless of migration status, every woman I’ve interviewed, to date, has mentioned a pathway to citizenship for immigrants as a top priority. My research adds further evidence of how migration status creates drastic differences in wages, access to capital, and health care among immigrants in the U.S. Many women are looking to leave the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the last administration behind.
Further investment in women- and minority-owned businesses are needed to vitalize economies in communities of color who have been devastated by the pandemic. There needs to be an increase in wages among home care workers so that they can work their way out of poverty. And lastly, more needs to be done to protect the occupational health and safety of home care workers as frontline health workers on behalf of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.