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Seven of every ten residents of southeast Los Angeles County have lost their jobs or had their wages cut during the pandemic, and 40% have less than $500 in savings to help them survive the economic devastation, according to a survey released today.

The survey was conducted for a Los Angeles foundation seeking information on how small cities in the region are faring, including Bell, Bell Gardens, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Maywood, Lynwood, South Gate, Paramount and East Compton, among others. About 700,000 people reside in the 15 communities, about 90% of them Latino with many families living below the poverty line.

Many people in the region are essential workers, including janitors, restaurant workers and grocery store employees. Of those surveyed, 41% said that they are working outside of the home, and a quarter said they do not feel safe in their workplace.

In addition, even though they were essential workers, people found it hard to obtain tests for the coronavirus. Nearly half said they wanted to be tested, but were unable to because of “testing deserts” — a lack of city testing sites and inadequate health care.

Despite the severe effects on their own finances, 75% said that their communities should do what they can to prevent the spread of the virus even if the economy remains shut down.

Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, project director at UCLA Labor Center, said many Latino communities were experiencing poverty before COVID-19 due to high cost of living conditions and low wages.

“When the COVID-19 hit, I think it exacerbated those conditions and it made it horrible,” he said.

Rivera-Salgado said in a low-wage economy, income is very unpredictable.

“Savings is not an issue, survival is an issue for these communities,” he said. “And given the fact that there is a high cost of living, you really end up living paycheck-by-paycheck and you don’t put money away for savings in case of disaster, like what you see now.”

Anayeli Velazquez, who lives with her husband and two daughters in Huntington Park, didn’t participate in the survey but she reflects many of the concerns reported. She said her husband is the main provider of the family, and when the outbreak started he was laid off from a clothing factory. 

The family decided to shelter at home but it was difficult because their savings didn’t last long. “We live day by day and barely have any savings,” Velazquez said.

Huntington Park Councilwoman Graciela Ortiz said many of her city’s residents are essential workers in grocery stores or at industrial plants in Vernon and Commerce. Most of the residents who lost their jobs were working in retail sales or restaurant and food industries. 

“Many of them don’t have the luxury to stay or work from home. They have to go to their locations,” she said. 

The city of Maywood is home to about 27,000 people, 98% of them Latino and more than a quarter of the families are living in poverty. Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA

The California Community Foundation, based in Los Angeles, commissioned the survey of 500 adults in their choice of English or Spanish from May 8 to May 14. Nearly half responded in Spanish. In partnership with the nonprofit Southeast Los Angeles (SELA) Collaborative, the survey was designed by researchers from the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles and Latino Decisions, a public-opinion research firm. Residents were randomly selected from phone and email databases of the region’s residents. 

One of the most striking results was that “cash reserves are extremely limited,” according to survey highlights from Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute, and Claudia Rodriguez of Latino Decisions.

A quarter of the residents surveyed said they have less than $100 in emergency savings, and another 15% have less than $500. About 30% of the participants said they are having trouble paying their rent, and almost half said they have received no help with rental or mortgage payments.

Rodriguez said the survey is designed to get a better understanding of how the pandemic is affecting people in the communities.

“We had an idea of how these communities were doing, but really seeing the severe economic impact, and the severe health impact, on our communities, once we had the numbers it’s so astounding to see,” she said.

Smaller cities are often forgotten and under-represented, Rodriguez said.

 “The smaller communities within the southeast LA region are particularly vulnerable and we should be paying attention to their needs,” she said.

Among those who said they qualify for unemployment, half have not yet received it. In addition, federal stimulus help has been inconsistent: About a quarter said they qualify for the $1,200 per person checks but did not receive them, and only one in three said they received the full payment.

Racism also is a major concern, with about 85% saying racism against Latinos and immigrants was a major or somewhat serious problem.

An industrial facility near a residential neighborhood in Maywood, southeast LA County. Photo by J. Emilio Flores, courtesy of Cal State LA
An industrial facility near a residential neighborhood in Maywood, in southeast LA County. Photo by J. Emilio Flores, courtesy of Cal State LA

Not enough testing

The survey found that coronavirus testing has been spotty in the southeast LA County region. Only 15% said they had been tested and 47% would like to be tested but have not been able to get a test for a variety of reasons. 

Despite following stay-at-home orders, Velazquez said her husband and seven close family members were sickened with the virus. She doesn’t know where or how her husband could have been infected.

“He would go out to buy groceries sometimes with his cousin,” said Velazquez. “Sometimes my brother in law, who kept working, would bring us food or essential items.” That brother-in-law eventually got infected and was forced to stop working. 

Due to immigration status, lack of health care resources and misinformation, none of the family members went to the hospital. Some of them feared their kids would be taken away; others feared they would die in the hospital. 

Velazquez said it was very difficult for the family to get tested.

“We just have the emergency Medi-Cal and we would call the LA County number but they wouldn’t give us an appointment,” she said. “I went to a local small clinic and they didn’t want to do it either because I don’t have a Social Security number. They said it would cost me about $300.”

Velazquez said a cousin faced a similar situation. He was infected and tested, but they didn’t want to test his wife.

“I feel like automatically they think we are infected and they just send us to stay at home for 14 days to see what are our symptoms,” said Velazquez.

In the survey, 68% of residents said that except for work, they have not left home during the pandemic or have left only about once a week.

After looking for more options, Velazquez finally was tested but hasn’t received the results yet. 

Dr. Efraín Talamantes, medical director for Institute for Health Equity at AltaMed, said that the biggest concern is inadequate access to tests in the poorest communities.

“If you have a few tests, they go to the people that have more resources,” said Talamantes. “So initially we started to see the trend, a lot more cases in Beverly Hills in West LA, and we weren’t seeing any cases in East LA or South Central.”

That’s because these areas are considered testing deserts. 

“If  you have a testing desert, you don’t know you have [the virus], then you won’t isolate yourself. You don’t know how to protect yourself and you spread it to others, you spread it to your colleagues at work, to your family,” he said. “You have these massive outbreaks that are happening because no one knows what’s going on. It’s too late by the time that the virus spreads so quickly.”

Bell Gardens Mayor Alejandra Cortez said the city council thinks improved access to testing would create better awareness of how the region is faring. 

“We know we have limited resources, hence why LA County keeps partnering with organizations like AltaMed that already have medical staff to prevent higher costs of having an independent testing site,” said Cortez. 

Bell Gardens and Huntington Park don’t have testing sites. Residents have to rely on neighboring cities, such as Commerce, Bell, South Gate and Downey. 

Ortiz said in Huntington Park some local clinics can perform testing but people have to ask first to see if tests are available.

“We worry because our numbers keep growing and we want to provide as many resources as we can to our residents,” said Ortiz. 

Ortiz said many of the region’s residents are being severely affected because they work in businesses prone to getting infected.

Tony Gomez, 41, a resident of South Gate who works for an unnamed city, said he worked from home when shelter-in-place orders were first announced in March. But soon afterward, he was told to work from the field.

“I feel safe, but just to an extent,” said Gomez. “They provided us with hand sanitizers, but we don’t know what people do outside of work.”

Jacqueline García is a reporter with La Opinión in Los Angeles. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

CalMatters COVID-19 coverage, translation and distribution is supported by generous grants from the Penner Family Foundation, Blue Shield of California Foundation and the California Health Care Foundation.

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Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. She is based at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles, where she has covered issues ranging...