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Construction workers in downtown San Diego on Dec. 16, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This is the fifth story in our reporting series, “Year One: COVID-19’s Death Toll.” See all the stories and interactive features here.

Robert Mejia was recently visited by a certain kind of grief. It was both the absence and presence of his father.  

Robert, who is 24, was sitting in the bleachers watching his younger brother play high school basketball – a role his dad used to fill. Jayme, their father, used to yell a lot from the bench.  

As Robert sat there trying to fill that role, thinking of all the things Jayme might have said, he suddenly felt overwhelmed by the sense that his dad was there.    

“I was in parent mode, watching, and I just started crying because I wish my dad was here to see this,” said Robert. “I could literally feel him.”  

Robert and his seven brothers and sisters are about to face their first Christmas without their father. Jayme died alone in a hospital last January from complications related to COVID-19. He was 43 years old. 

His family isn’t quite sure where he caught COVID, but one possibility is his job site. Jayme was a heavy equipment operator in the construction industry – a profession overrepresented among those who died, according to a new analysis of death certificates by Voice of San Diego.  

As part of an ongoing series, Year One: COVID-19’s Death Toll, a team of reporters logged more than 4,000 death certificates – one for each COVID-related death during the first year of the pandemic. COVID-19 is far more deadly for elders, but more than 1,000 people who died were 65 or younger. 

Voice of San Diego categorized the professions of each of those working-age San Diegans, according to U.S. Census industry codes. The analysis reveals that COVID ripped through some working-class professions, even as white-collar professionals tended to be more isolated.  

Agricultural workers were hit harder than any other group. Their share of the death toll was 612 percent higher their share of San Diego County’s workers.  

A wide-ranging Census category which encompasses security guards, custodians and clerical workers experienced the second most disparate death rate.   

Construction workers had the third highest death rate – and represented the single highest number of deaths. Out of 1,024 working-age people who died, 132 worked in construction.  

“It’s sad. It’s an unfortunate thing,” said Kelvin Barrios, community engagement director of the Laborers Local Union 89, which represents nearly 4,000 construction workers in San Diego.   

Barrios, however, was quick to point out that no working-age members of Local 89 died from COVID-19. He said the union went above and beyond state guidelines in creating safety protocols for job sites.  

It’s unclear exactly why construction workers died at such high rates.  

Construction workers in downtown San Diego on Dec. 16, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Robert said his dad Jayme, who had diabetes, was always extra careful about washing his hands and trying to keep his distance. But Jayme told him that fellow workers frequently showed up to work with a cough and that it wasn’t exactly easy to wash his hands on job sites.  

Ricardo Favela is the son of a farmworker and grew up in Fallbrook, which calls itself the avocado capital of the world. He volunteers with a group called Voces de Fallbrook that does advocacy and outreach for farmworkers.  

“In town we know many wives that are widowed, brothers that have been lost, parents. It’s hit this community pretty hard,” he said.  

Life for farmworkers can be “very secluded,” said Favela. That means farmworkers have had less access to good information, healthcare facilities, COVID tests and now the vaccine.   

Better outreach to farmworkers, Favela said, could have led to better outcomes. He pointed to a recent vaccine drive to illustrate his point.  

Volunteers in Fallbrook started knocking on doors a few weeks ago to tell people about a free vaccine clinic. The door-to-door campaign led to 200 people being vaccinated. Getting information and services to rural communities, said Favela, requires this kind of boots-on-the-ground approach.  

“The irony that I don’t think we’ve come to terms with in this community is that the workers that produce this fruit we’re so proud of are relegated to margins of society here,” he said.  

Favela also mentioned that many farmworkers live in multi-generational housing, which means COVID could have been spread between family members living in the same house.  

Some trends previously revealed by Voice were even more pronounced among working-age people. For instance, 60 percent of working-age San Diegans who died were immigrants. The same was true for 52 percent of all people who died. Among working-age people, 65 percent who died were Latino – even though Latinos represented 53 percent of all deaths.   

Income also seems to be linked to death rates. Lower income ZIP codes had significantly higher rates of death. In fact, for every $6,600 increase in median income death rates went down by ten percent 

A farmer walks through some orange bushes at Atkins Nursery in Fallbrook. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Among the four industries with significantly elevated risk of death – which include farmworkers, custodians and landscapers, construction workers and transportation workers – none have a median income higher than $50,000 per year.  

The professions with significantly decreased rates of death aren’t a surprise.  

Professional service providers like lawyers, accountants and architects were the least likely working-age San Diegans to die. They represent nearly 11 percent of the population, but less than one percent of all deaths.  

Finance workers and real estate professionals also had significantly decreased rates of death. Interestingly, people working in retail shops, like grocery stores or shoe stores also had decreased rates of death, despite many of them remaining essential during the pandemic.  

Education workers, such as teachers, also had decreased rates of death.  

Maria Rosario Araneta, a public health professor at UC San Diego, said the findings are consistent with research into excess deaths during the pandemic. Food and agriculture workers were among those with the highest excess death rates. 

An excess death analysis shows the number of people who died by any cause compared to all deaths in a typical year. Voice’s analysis specifically measured those who died related to COVID.

Robert and his mom and brothers and sisters are left trying to rebuild a life they thought would include their father for many more years to come. Jayme was the person they all went to for advice or to be picked up when they were down.  

“I don’t think we all show it too much to each other, but it’s really hard,” said Robert. “I don’t understand life anymore.” 

Bella Ross contributed to this report.  


This reporting project is made possible with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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