Most mornings, Paulino Ramos sat under the small tree at the entrance of a busy Home Depot parking lot near Downtown Los Angeles. Other day laborers hanging around on the corner knew they could find their friend there, waiting in the shade for construction jobs. But in early September, they noticed Ramos, the sturdily built demolition worker, looked weak.
“He lost a lot of weight and he looked sad,” says Fernando Sanchez, a day laborer whose main trade is roofing. He stares at the ground as he talks about Ramos. “I think when someone thinks they’re going to die, they know; they can feel it.”
On the morning of September 7, Labor Day, Ramos was sitting in his spot under the tree with his head down, hunched over in pain. One worker thought Ramos was having a heart attack.
“He was saying, ‘I have pain in my chest,’ and he couldn’t breathe,” says Jorge Nicolás, organizer of the Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles (CARECEN) Day Labor Center, located on the Home Depot parking lot. “One of the workers here took him to the ER. And after that, we never saw him again.”
Ramos, a low-wage day laborer desperate to earn a paycheck, became one of the more than 290,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the country’s Latino population especially hard. In Los Angeles County, Latinos make up 51% of COVID-19 deaths, according to the LA Department of Public Health.
Ramos was 53. He was alone here in the U.S.; he lived apart from his family in Mexico for many years. He often told Nicolás that he was eager to return home to the state of Puebla to be with his wife and three kids, and his grandkids that he’d never met.
He died shortly after he was brought to the ER.
“He was a loving father, a loving husband, and he always tried to provide for his family,” says Nicolás. “That’s the reason he came [to the U.S.], to be able to provide a better opportunity for his kids.”
Ramos’ story reflects the reality of day laborers on the edge of poverty in this pandemic. The once-abundant construction jobs available in this parking lot have all but dried up since March, and Ramos could no longer afford to pay his rent. Before he died, he received a $300 grant from CARECEN and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network to assist with basic expenses. In a video he recorded for the organizations’ donors, Ramos said: “I am grateful I got help, so at least I can eat.”
Inside the tiny, open-air CARECEN Day Labor Center, which provides economic programs for day laborers, workers constructed a makeshift memorial to honor Ramos. There’s a small table with now-wilted flowers, prayer candles and photos. A black-and-white image shows Ramos in the hospital bed, hooked-up to machines and tubes as he battled COVID-19. But the color photograph the workers pinned above the memorial reminds them of the man they all knew: A quiet friend with graying black hair, a mustache and a little smile.
There’s worry at this corner of the parking lot that workers like Ramos are more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. Ramos spent over a decade working demolition jobs across LA, where he risked exposure to hazardous materials like asbestos, mold and concrete dust.
“There are strong chemicals in the old buildings we work in,” says Jesús Monge, one of the workers standing outside The Home Depot. Monge’s been a painter since arriving in the U.S. from El Salvador in 1981. “A lot of workers here have damaged their lungs, including me.”
Employers are required to provide protective equipment at job sites, but Monge says they rarely do. Even in a pandemic, he says day laborers often go without PPE because workers can’t afford the expense.
Employers don’t offer health insurance, and day laborers don’t have access to sick pay. There’s pressure to show up to work, even if an individual is overcome by symptoms of COVID-19, like Ramos experienced. And like many day laborers at this parking lot, Ramos was undocumented.
Mario Guerra, a welder waiting on the corner, says he wonders if he’ll suffer the same fate as his friend. “I don’t know if I’ll ever go home to El Salvador or if I’ll die here,” he says. “I want to see my mom and my daughter but — that’s life.”
Paulino Ramos dreamed of returning home, too. Last week, his remains were sent back to his family in Mexico.