Newsletter: Facing high coronavirus risk, low-wage workers push back


Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, March 31. I’m Laura J. Nelson, filling in for Julia Wick, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Few activities expose the divisions in modern America like buying groceries during a pandemic.

Online shopping, home grocery delivery and restaurant takeout are surging as people hunker down at home. Each online order dispatches a worker, who doesn’t have the privilege of staying home, to pack a box, fill a grocery cart or retrieve a prepared meal for someone who does.

Those front-line workers — grocery store checkers, gig workers, food delivery employees — are a lifeline for people at home. They earn little to no sick leave and face a high risk of infection. Already, Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores have seen infections among their workers.


The fear of sickness and the faltering economy have sparked something rarely seen at these companies: labor action.

Instacart workers nationwide went on strike on Monday, demanding that the San Francisco company provide an additional $5 per order in hazard pay, better sick leave policies, and protective supplies such as disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.

Some workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island walked off the job Monday. Some Whole Foods workers said they planned to call in sick en masse on Tuesday to demand paid leave for all workers, free COVID-19 tests and hazard pay at twice the usual rate.

[Read the story: “Instacart workers strike over safety; company claims ‘no impact’ on deliveries”]

One worker on the new Inglewood NFL stadium has tested positive and another is presumed positive. Still, work pushes ahead. The estimated 3,000 workers there — carpenters, crane operators, electricians, iron workers, painters and tile layers — worry that the stadium project could expose them and their families to the virus.

The economic pain of the pandemic is hurting other gig workers too, including day laborers whose income can vary wildly. As my colleague Ruben Vives writes, “If there’s a constant of economic crises, it’s that low-wage earners — especially black and Latino workers — tend to take the biggest hits.”


The workers who are still coming in every day, performing essential tasks, are some of society’s lowest paid. Maybe the pandemic will force America to reevaluate what work is “essential” enough to merit a living wage, editor Matt Fleischer argues in the Opinion section.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


LAUSD’s “distance learning” isn’t going smoothly. About one-third of some 120,000 Los Angeles high school students haven’t logged in for class every day, and one in eight students has been absent entirely, district officials say. Los Angeles Times

If you’re still riding Metro, you’re one of the few. Trips on the West Coast’s busiest transit network have fallen by more than 70% this month. Photographer Brian van der Brug has been documenting eerily empty trains, buses and stations. Los Angeles Times

A man waits on a Metro A Line train wrapped with images of Clippers players at the 7th Street/Metro Center subway station in Los Angeles.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

There are COVID-19 outbreaks at 11 nursing homes in Los Angeles County. The disease is spreading through nursing homes with terrifying speed. One of the first hot spots in the U.S. was a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., where two-thirds of the residents and 47 workers fell ill, and 37 people died. Los Angeles Times


You’d think it was opening day. Why are there so many cars parked at Dodger Stadium? The Eastsider

Full cork press: How L.A.’s wine shops keep business flowing during a pandemic. Los Angeles Times

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A pioneering labor activist dies: Soledad “Chole” Alatorre came to California in the 1950s to help her exploited countrymen in el Norte. Alatorre worked to get hired at companies that relied on low-paid, undocumented immigrants. She would quickly get promoted to supervisor, then use her influence to surreptitiously urge workers to agitate for better pay. When management found out, and fired her, the employees would walk out. A union usually followed. Los Angeles Times

They pay taxes, but won’t get stimulus checks. Under the $2-trillion stimulus pandemic plan, parents who are in the country without documentation won’t receive a payment of $500 per child, even if their children are citizens. Wall Street Journal

Central American countries are highly vulnerable to the pandemic due to chronic poverty, corruption, violence and dysfunctional healthcare systems. Now, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador fear President Trump could deport the coronavirus to them. Los Angeles Times



The rent is due tomorrow. Here’s a Q&A for renters on how to navigate the new coronavirus eviction bans. Los Angeles Times

A rent freeze for many Los Angeles apartments: Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the temporary action, which applies to about 624,000 apartments covered by the city’s rent stabilization ordinance, on Monday night. Los Angeles Times

Is cannabis essential during a pandemic? Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order closed gyms, retail stores and dozens of other types of businesses — but not dispensaries. Critics say it doesn’t make sense to allow people to violate social-distancing guidelines to buy products that are smoked during a pandemic that attacks respiratory systems. Los Angeles Times

Mixed messages: Trump’s daily pandemic press conferences have provided a real-time look at his decision making process: the vacillating, the wishful thinking, the degree to which he’s influenced by whoever talked to him last or whatever he last saw on cable TV. Los Angeles Times


Roll call, temperature check: The Los Angeles Police Department is taking officers’ temperatures at the start of each shift in an effort to slow the spread of the virus in the ranks. Chief Michel Moore has planned for a worst-case scenario where up to half the department calls in sick. As of Monday, 27 officers had tested positive for COVID-19. Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County’s jail system, the biggest in the world, has its first coronavirus infections. An inmate in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown L.A. and four jail employees have tested positive, heightening fears that the disease could spread quickly in the overcrowded system. Los Angeles Times

San Francisco has reduced its jail population by 25% in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Officials are prioritizing early release for elderly people and those with severe underlying medical conditions. San Francisco Chronicle


For more health information, subscribe to Coronavirus Today, our free daily newsletter that explains the pandemic and its effects.

The Trump administration plans to roll back fuel standards, reversing a major effort to fight climate change. Some officials pushing the looser policy have long-standing ties to the fossil fuel industry. Los Angeles Times


Are we flattening the curve? Thanks in part to aggressive social distancing measures, coronavirus cases in California are rising at a slower rate than other U.S. hot spots, including New Jersey, New York and Louisiana. But don’t leave your house just yet. Los Angeles Times

And speaking of social distancing, six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area are extending their stay-at-home orders through May 1. Los Angeles Times

Testing our patience: Thousands of people are waiting a week or more for COVID-19 test results to come back from a single facility in San Juan Capistrano. The Southern California lab has become a major bottleneck as the country tries to accelerate coronavirus testing. Los Angeles Times


Only 90s kids will remember: The Backstreet Boys reunited this week — digitally, that is — to perform their hit single, “I Want It That Way.” Come for the music, stay for the baby cameos and interior design choices. Cool pinball machine, Brian Littrell! Vanity Fair

No crime means no crime stories. But the post-coronavirus era could be fertile ground for a new generation of mystery fiction, much like the Great Depression inspired Raymond Chandler. Novelist Steph Cha says, “Noir flourishes in these hotbeds of desperation.” Los Angeles Times

Nama-stay at home: With many boutique gyms struggling to make ends meet, Southern California yoga studios are live-streaming classes. No one’s looking at you, so it’s the perfect time to give crow pose another shot. Los Angeles Times



Los Angeles: sunny, 65. San Diego: partly cloudy, 71. San Francisco: mostly sunny, 61. San Jose: mostly sunny, 65. Fresno: mostly sunny, 73. Sacramento: partly sunny, 69. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Rudy Ruiz, who made his first trip to California in 1948 to visit an aunt.

I had never been out of the state of Texas before. That first morning, I stepped out of her home in Lincoln Hights, east of downtown L.A., and saw the snow-covered peak of Mount Wilson. This memory stands out in a life fully lived, as vivid today as it was 72 years ago.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Laura by email. Follow her on Twitter: @laura_nelson.