‘We’ve always been essential.’ Latinos fill jobs keeping Idaho afloat in a pandemic

Boise State Student Alejandra Hernandez works as a CNA on the front lines at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center
Posted at 2:54 PM, Jul 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-04 16:54:03-04

This article was originally written by Nicole Foy and Megan Taros of the Idaho Statesman.

The day after Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced the state’s first confirmed coronavirus case Alejandra Hernandez, 21, got a call from the staffing office at Saint Alphonsus in Boise.

The Boise State University student and Certified Nursing Assistant had been assigned to the emergency room, where she would likely be screening patients for COVID-19 symptoms.

“There was this little moment of silence,” Hernandez remembered. “I think she was waiting for me to say ‘Oh, I don’t want to go,’ and I was waiting for her to say it.”

Of course, Hernandez said, she said yes. This was her job, after all. She had broken down in tears the day before, overwhelmed by the task she was about to undertake. This time, she put her worries in the back of her mind and prepared for work.

Idaho Latinos have filled essential jobs since the virus first appeared in the state, working in positions that can’t be remote or require working in close quarters with people who may be ill. As many states like Idaho reopen the economy, experts believe high proportions of Latinos in essential jobs is one of the things driving disproportionately high COVID-19 infection and fatality rates across the country.

In Idaho, that’s led to scores of Latino workers in food processing and meatpacking plants testing positive for coronavirus across Idaho. In five of eight counties in the Magic Valley, Latinos are more than 50% of confirmed coronavirus cases.

Latinos are only 13% of Idaho’s population, but as of July 2, they were more than 35% of Idaho’s coronavirus cases with confirmed race or ethnicity.

Early 2020 showed that Idaho Latinos also made up significant percentages of three industry groups that have since been hard hit by the coronavirus economic crisis: retail, arts, entertainment and recreation, and accommodation and food services. Hispanics filed 11% of all unemployment claims in the first three weeks following Idaho’s emergency declaration, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.

Latinos also tend to work in the lower-paying sectors of Idaho’s economy, according to Kathryn Tacke, a regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor. In 2019, Hispanics were already more likely to be in the low-paying occupations in individual industry sectors like food prep, cleaning and assembly rather than higher-paying managerial and professional occupations.

Much of these jobs were deemed essential in the early days of the pandemic, meaning many Latinos continued to work, increasing their risk of exposure. The over-representation of Latinos in these jobs in part contributes to higher case numbers, but Latinos have also historically been at a disadvantage when it comes to health care.

Biases in medical care, distrust of health providers and government, unfulfilled language and cultural needs, and a tendency to come from low-income backgrounds have put Latinos in a precarious position that often result in an inability or fear of seeking care.

“In the area where we are at, we’ve seen some of the outbreaks in (processing) plants . . . so if they are being overexposed, do they have a trusted usual source of care? Do they have health insurance or not? Are they able to access health care services in a timely manner?” said Daniel Lopez-Cevallos, associate director of research at the Center for Latina/o Studies and Engagement at the University of Oregon. “Certainly because of the context of an anti-immigrant and, by extension, an anti-Latino, environment, it makes it harder for the community to access needed services.”


Outbreaks plagued food-processing facilities nationwide, including several in Idaho. More than half of employees tested positive at the Ida-Beef meat-processing facility in Burley, and at least 70 employees tested positive at Rite Stuff Foods in Jerome, which makes specialty potato products. Prior to the Ida-Beef outbreak, an OSHA complaint was made about the plant for coronavirus-related concerns, though plant managers and the U.S. Department of Labor did not specify where the complaint came from.

Just this week, two more outbreaks at food processing plants were reported in the Magic Valley region at McCain Foods in Burley and Magic Valley Growers in Gooding County.

While testing for agriculture workers and related industries has gone up, which contributes in part to the rising rate of cases for Latinos, close quarters and inconsistencies in protection for workers put laborers at a higher risk of becoming infected.

“There are some dairies that are working harder to provide information, but some others are limiting (precautions) to fliers and more hand-washing stations,” said Mario de Haro-Marti, University of Idaho Extension dairy livestock and environmental educator.

De Haro-Marti is working with three other universities to secure a grant to create a centralized location for COVID-19 information made for agriculture workers and Spanish-speakers. Several sources who work in dairy said it is imperative dairy and agriculture workers understand how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, as a blow to these industries due to outbreaks would be a disaster for the state.

Immigration status complicates the issue as much of Idaho’s agriculture workers are undocumented, exacerbating fears of deportation as coronavirus cases must be reported to public health districts. It also means their ability to seek care is hampered due to complexities in obtaining insurance and the lack of affordability as many of them live paycheck to paycheck.

“They are essential workers. It is difficult for them to stop working,” de Haro-Marti said. “One thing we need for everyone is emergency plans. Most of it is reactive instead of proactive ... Especially if you are undocumented, they don’t have sick leave or the same protection other workers have.”


While Latinos have made national headlines for their vulnerability to coronavirus because of jobs in agriculture and food processing plants — often without sufficient protection — a significant percentage of Latinos also work in Idaho’s health care system. About 10% of Idaho’s health care and social assistance sector — more than 10,000 employees — are Latino, according to 2019 data from the Idaho Department of Labor.

Mario Villegas worked as an emergency room doctor in his native country of Colombia for years. He and his wife immigrated to the United States to be close to their daughters, who were attending college in Montana, and they settled in Nampa. Villegas didn’t want to go through medical school a second time to be licensed to practice in the United States. Instead, he became a Certified Nursing Assistant through a College of Western Idaho program and now works at Saint Alphonsus in Boise along with Hernandez.

Although his age could make him more vulnerable to the coronavirus, Villegas said he was confident he and the rest of his team were up to the ongoing challenge of the pandemic in Idaho.

“I am 60 years old,” Villegas said. “I have faced more than one crisis situation.”

The number of coronavirus cases among Idaho health care workers rises every week. As of July 2, 519 health care workers had contracted the virus. Like their white peers in the health care industry, Latinos — who are statistically more likely to have larger, intergenerational households — have to deal with the risk of bringing the virus home to their family members if they’re healthcare workers.

For Karina Villafana, 28, that means “annoying” her parents and two siblings that she lives with in Kuna to practice social distancing and wash their hands. As a medical surgical nurse at St. Luke’s, she doesn’t usually come into contact with confirmed or suspected coronavirus cases. But she still worries about protecting her family, especially her disabled mother, sister with down syndrome, and brother with epilepsy.

“Caregiver here at home, caregiver at work,” Villafana said. “I was meant to do this.”

Hernandez, a four-hour drive from her family in Teton, had the opposite problem. In the first months of the pandemic, she agonized over the distance, wondering when she would be able to visit them without fear of passing the virus to them. When the stay-at-home order took effect, she had called to urge her dad, who drives to Jackson, Wyoming, for construction work every week, to keep his “essential worker” letter handy and ask his employer for a mask.

As new coronavirus cases slowed and her classes ended in May, Hernandez was able to take a quick trip to see her family before she returned to work again.

“Sometimes we have to go through this (huge) storm to have this beautiful sunny day,” Hernandez said. “That’s honestly what I keep telling myself. Things shall pass. It shall pass soon.”

Hernandez, Villegas and Villafana all said they sometimes serve as translators for patients who only speak Spanish. Hernandez said she was concerned about the patients she encountered who didn’t seem to have all the coronavirus information they needed in Spanish, or who didn’t have regular access to medical care.

“I’ve already seen the inequality that there is within Black and brown communities,” Hernandez said. “Now I’m seeing way more of it.”


On a sweltering day in May when many were swimming and barbecuing, the line at Cheverria, a Mexican market in Jerome, nearly reached the door. While it experienced a dip in customers at the height of the pandemic, the community began to return to support it, employees said. It managed to hang on better than restaurants because it is counter-service and didn’t rely on dine-in customers, but the changes that came with the pandemic were difficult.

“We’re sad to see how things changed,” Baldo Sandoval, an employee and son of Cheverria owner Enrique Sandoval, told the Times-News in May. “But we’re still here every day doing what we’ve always done.”

Some Latino businesses — the fastest-growing in the U.S. — struggled to stay afloat as their shops were forced to close and essential businesses had to operate limited hours to accommodate for the drop in customers. But Latino and black-owned businesses also received less in aid than their peers.

A survey conducted by equal-rights groups Color of Change and UnidosUS, Latino and black-owned businesses who requested aid from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program received little or no help. Only 12% of businesses, many which were seeking loans, received what they asked for while 26% got only a portion of what they asked for.

Disenfranchisement makes it difficult to bring communities of color to the table and compounds distrust that extends to institutions like schools and hospitals, Lopez-Cevallos said. The gap can be mended by an investment in cultural competency and working with organizations that are trusted by these communities.

“By being already marginalized, this creates the erosion of public trust in government and leaves us with relatively few levers to engage the community,” Lopez-Cevallos said. “In that environment it’s important to engage with community-engaged groups that already have connections to the community.”


Idaho’s cases spiked by 172% and reached a one-day high of 243 cases Wednesday. After a spike in cases in June, Central District Health moved Ada County back to Stage 3. By July 2, four Idaho cities in different parts of the state had mandated masks in public. The Magic Valley experienced a 35% uptick in cases, with trends affecting Latinos remaining similar to weeks previous.

Gov. Little announced June 25 that Idaho would not advance beyond Stage 4 of reopening. While he promised personal protective equipment to small businesses, he did not elaborate on whether that extended to agriculture workers.

“The thing about Latinos, when they go into something, they go in with all of their heart,” Hernandez said. “I wish that people knew that yeah, they call us essential or whatever, but we’ve always been essential. No matter what.”