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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

Young Immigrant Says Don't 'Judge' Essential Workers For Working During COVID-19

KUNC Composite Illustration
Some employees across Colorado have stopped working from home and returned to the office but thousands of essential workers have continued to go in during the pandemic.

College student Erika Cardenas never wanted to take an online class. But the coronavirus didn't leave her with much of a choice.

"I've been avoiding online classes my whole life because I can't concentrate at home," she said. "The only thing that I want to do when I'm at home is to sleep."

The 23-year-old wants to be a teacher. Right now, she is finishing up her junior year at the University of Northern Colorado where all courses were moved online after spring break.

"So, it's difficult. But at the same time, it's good I guess because I spend more time with my siblings," she said.

Cardenas moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 15. She lives in Greeley with her parents, aunt, uncle and twin siblings and cousin who are all seniors in high school.

"From 8 to 12, they go to school. After that we take lunch, I make lunch for them," she said.

Then Cardenas studies for her finals before cooking for her mom and aunt. Both are essential workers at the Mountain States Rosen Company lamb processing plant in Greeley.

"Well, when my mom and my aunt get home, they leave all the stuff on the garage and they go straight to shower," she said. "We don't go out."

Many non-essential businesses are again open in Colorado under the state's "safer-at-home" order. Workers are emerging from their work-from-home routines and returning to the office. But thousands of people never had the ability to work from home. Essential workers, like Cardenas' mom and aunt have continued to go in during the coronavirus outbreak.

Colorado's meat packing plants are hotspots for COVID-19. JBS in Greeley has one of the largest outbreaks with at least 280 confirmed cases and seven deaths. Mountain States Rosen has had at least eight employees test positive.

The Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado (IRCNOCO) helps these groups integrate into society with assistance like educational classes and work-place readiness programs. The nonprofit has hundreds of clients that work at meatpacking plants.

"We were hearing concerns from both sides," Lisa Taylor, the executive director of IRCNOCO said. "Clients saying, 'I'm scared to go to work because I don't want to get sick,' and clients saying, 'I'm scared to not have work to go to because I can't afford to lose wages.'"

Cardenas and her family fall into both categories. She said her mom and aunt are scared to go to work but don't have a choice. Her father got laid off from the oil company he worked at and her uncle works sporadically.

"I always think about my mom and how she left everything back in Mexico for us and for us to get infected, it's really scary," she said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tracks race and ethnicity data on COVID-19 infections and deaths. It shows black and Hispanic residents are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Many immigrants fall into these racial and ethnic groups.

"We know that having low socioeconomic status and limited language skills that those are barriers that are pervasive to economic mobility on our best day in regular life," Lisa Taylor said.

Coronavirus has not created a lot of new problems, she said. Instead, it has exacerbated inequity gaps that already exist.

"I think that unfortunately what a pandemic like this does, is it really sheds a spotlight on those gaps and those problems as it relates to access," Taylor said.

That's why the Center for Health Progress has posted videos in Spanish to help immigrants and others access emergency Medicaid and navigate childcare and other emergency funds.

Credit Cristina Cardenas Alfaro
College student Erika Cardenas studies for her finals at home. Her mom and aunt are essential workers at a meatpacking plant and she worries for their safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

"A lot of communities we work with have not had access to a medical home or reliable or affordable health insurance for a variety of reasons," Maggie Gomez, deputy director for the Center for Health Progress said.

People are not recklessly avoiding health care or being irresponsible, she said, they are nervous about the cost of care and sharing their information. That is partly because of a recent change to U.S. immigration policy that makes it harder for legal immigrants to get citizenship if they receive certain federal benefits like Medicaid or SNAP.

"We are working really hard to ensure that folks have access to what they need regardless of their status, their income, their ethnicity or where they live," Gomez said.

In the meantime, Erika Cardenas is focused on her family. She said a woman called her mom and told her to quit going to work.

"I mean it's good for people who can work from home but like people who doesn't, who are essential workers," she said. "I don't think we have a right to judge them."

Cardenas says Mountain States Rosen requires her mom, aunt and other employees to wear masks and the plant has installed hand sanitizing stations. It is in line with voluntary guidelines for meatpacking plants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"They just keep on going to work because we never know what's going to happen next," she said. "They just want to make sure that we're okay."

The “American Dream” was coined in 1931 and since then the phrase has inspired people to work hard and dream big. But is it achievable today? Graduating from college is challenging, jobs are changing, and health care and basic rights can be a luxury. I report on the barriers people face and overcome to succeed and create a better life for themselves and their families.
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