Susana Herrera and Juan Martinez at their home on Thanksgiving morning. Juan, who himself was ill with COVID-19 in May, has seen four co-workers die of the disease. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso’s low-income neighborhoods bore a disproportionate share of El Paso’s fall COVID-19 explosion, an El Paso Matters analysis shows.

Advocates for low-income families said a variety of challenges face those areas, including many essential workers who do not have the option to work remotely.

“People aren’t just getting sick because they want to get sick, it’s because they have to go to work,” said Margarita Arvizu, who works with the Border Network for Human Rights representing the Montana Vista area in far East El Paso.

El Paso has 26 ZIP codes with reported COVID-19 infections. The 13 with the lowest median household income levels have had 19% more COVID-19 cases per capita in the past two months than the 13 with the highest median incomes.

El Paso Matters tracked infection rates in El Paso ZIP codes for COVID-19 positive tests between Sept. 28 and Nov. 27. The analysis showed that the El Paso ZIP code with the lowest per-capita income — Downtown’s 79901 — had an infection rate more than twice as high as the county’s most affluent ZIP code, 79911 on the West Side/Upper Valley.

The per-capita infection rate in El Paso’s five poorest ZIP codes over the past two months was 29% higher than in the five wealthiest ZIP codes. That is a trend that has held through most of the pandemic. From April to September, the infection rate in the five poorest ZIP codes was 36% higher than the five wealthiest.

Tracking infection rates by ZIP codes has limitations because some ZIP codes include a mixture of low-income and high-income neighborhoods.

The highest infection rate over the past two months occurred in the 79928 ZIP code, which includes middle-class neighborhoods in Horizon City and low-income colonias such as Agua Dulce. Almost 1% of the ZIP code’s population tested positive for COVID-19 over the past two months.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo and Public Health Authority Hector Ocaranza repeatedly said the fall outbreak was triggered by large gatherings of young people. However, the El Paso Matters analysis showed little correlation between infection rates and median ages in ZIP codes. The infection rate in the 13 youngest ZIP codes (by median age) was only 2.5% higher than in the 13 oldest ZIP codes.

No choice but to work

Arvizu said she has seen many families and essential workers who do not have benefits such as paid sick leave or paid time off. She said many families have also had challenges accessing government aid such as rental assistance because of the paperwork that is required.

“People get discouraged, some people rent, but don’t have things like utility bills in their names. So a lot of these organizations ask for statements in their names, or they don’t have official rental agreements — so it’s a lot of difficulties — they don’t have those things to show,” Arvizu said. “People get discouraged so they think it’s better to not apply.”

Margarita Arvizu, a community coordinator with Border Network for Human Rights, says that some of the challenges affecting her Montana Vista neighborhood include a lack of nearby testing sites, pre-existing conditions like diabetes, and the high-risk type of work that many of her neighbors do. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Arvizu said those barriers have been faced by both documented and undocumented workers.

“It’s also people who work in the service industry like restaurants, gas stations or in construction — that’s where the risk is,” Arvizu said.

One family’s experience

Susana Herrera, who works with families in Central El Paso for BNHR, said she has seen similar challenges in that area.

Herrera said she knows first-hand about the challenges. She and her husband, Juan Antonio Martinez, who works in construction, contracted COVID-19 in May.

“One of his coworkers got sick, and then one day they were eating lunch and he said he couldn’t taste his food and he suddenly realized he might be sick,” Herrera said.

Susana Herrera, a volunteer with Border Network for Human Rights, has seen the pandemic’s affect on her immediate community. She works to educate her neighbors on finding resources and assistance to address the health and economic challenges brought by COVID-19. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Her husband tested positive for COVID-19 May 7; she tested positive a couple of days later. Herrera said their 2-year-old daughter Camila Martinez also tested positive, but did not have severe symptoms.

Herrera said her husband was out of work for the majority of May and did not get paid while he was ill.

“In my area I have many families that have been infected with COVID. Unfortunately they have to go out and work because they are essential workers and they have gone home and infected their parents and siblings,” Herrera said.

Herrera said some of the families and workers who don’t have benefits are told by their bosses that they won’t get paid while they are sick with COVID-19, but will still have a job when they have recovered from the virus.

“If you don’t work, there’s no recourse. That’s what makes me very sad,” Herrera said.

Businesses face confusion

Leila Melendez, chief executive officer at Workforce Solutions Borderplex, said both employers and employees have faced a lot of uncertainty and confusion about benefits and working during the pandemic.

Leila Melendez is CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex.

Melendez said part of the challenge is that there is not one cookie-cutter way for everybody.

“There really is no exact definitive answer for a lot of these things, and I think that’s the difficulty with folks,” she said.

Melendez said people are taking risks or making decisions without all of the necessary information. She said the confusion has led some employers to allow COVID-19 positive employees to continue to work.

“Several people have said I am positive and my employer still wants me to work because I don’t have symptoms, and we say ‘no, don’t report to work’ — so there is this struggle because employers either don’t know or they are willing to risk it,” Melendez said. “They are being told to work and that’s not good and that is where the spread is happening.”

Melendez said the practice endangers workers, makes economic recovery more difficult and can also endanger clients.

“There are businesses that we have talked to that do HVAC and heating and they are asking their employees to report to work and go work in people’s homes. I mean, these are your clients,” Melendez said. “I know you rely on your clients, but your clients are also relying on you to keep them safe and it’s just a very difficult struggle and a very difficult thing to balance.”

Looking to the future

Melendez said Workforce Solutions has been working to educate and provide resources for businesses and employees that have been laid off or lost their jobs, but there are challenges.

Melendez said one of the first things that needs to happen in the smaller communities and more remote areas is that basic infrastructure such as information technology and broadband needs to be improved so that more people have the option to work from home.

She said she understands that simply having WiFi doesn’t automatically fix the situation, so Workforce Solutions is aiming to develop a curriculum that will help people adjust to the nuances of working from home.

“We’re trying to figure out as the economy changes, as business models change, as more work is done virtually and online how can we help those folks actually start working from home,” Melendez said.

She said many training resources are currently free and she is hoping people take advantage of the opportunity to learn a new skill to build themselves up and seek different job opportunities than they had when the pandemic began.

“I think everybody — we were fooling ourselves that this would be just a couple of weeks and it would go back to the way it was — and the longer that we are in this space I think it’s starting to occur to people: I’ve got to do something different, but we don’t want to return to March 13. We want to be better. We want to design a better economy than what we went in with,” Melendez said.

Cover photo: Susana Herrera and Juan Martinez at their home on Thanksgiving morning. Juan, who himself was ill with COVID-19 in May, said he has seen four co-workers die of the disease. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...