ALC @ 50: Watch new videos featuring our staff, alumni, and co-founders reflecting on the past five decades and what comes next.

New Report Details Impossible Choices Workers Face

September 29, 2021 Perspective


Winifred Kao

Winifred Kao

Senior Counsel, Impact Litigation & Senior Staff Attorney, Workers' Rights

Winifred Kao

Senior Counsel, Impact Litigation & Senior Staff Attorney, Workers' Rights

Winifred Kao is Senior Counsel for Impact Litigation at ALC. She also leads ALC’s Workers’ Rights Program. She served as ALC’s Litigation Director from 2011 – 2020 during which time she helped provide direction and support on ALC’s impact litigation across program areas. Prior to coming to ALC, Winnie worked at a union-side labor and employment law firm where she primarily represented hotel, restaurant and food and commercial workers and unions in a wide variety of labor, employment, constitutional, and class-action cases. Winnie was previously a trial attorney for the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division where she litigated housing and public accommodation discrimination cases. She also served on detail as a Special Assistant United States Attorney in the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC, and was an extern for the Honorable Gladys Kessler in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Winnie has worked as a community organizer for labor and civil rights groups. She is a graduate of Yale College and the University of Michigan Law School where she was a member of the Michigan Law Review.

She has won commendations and awards for her work from numerous organizations including the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the University of Michigan Law School.

Little to no information about COVID-19 protection. Aggressive customers. A lack of masks and sanitary equipment. A fear of retaliation and unemployment. This is what low-wage workers across California were up against during the height of the pandemic, according to our survey.

The Asian Law Caucus’ Workers’ Rights team, along with UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP), surveyed 636 primarily Asian and Latinx workers across several industries, particularly restaurant, home health care, janitorial, and hospitality. The report includes six in-depth interviews with workers conducted in February and March 2021 that shed light on the impossible choices faced by workers during the pandemic.

We found:

  • One in three workers were not comfortable reporting COVID-19 symptoms to their employer;
  • Almost one in five workers who risked their lives to provide services during the pandemic were paid less than the minimum wage;
  • More than two-thirds of those paid below minimum wage received no information on what to do if sick or exposed to COVID-19;
  • Half of surveyed workers reported being concerned that they will be unable to financially support themselves or their families if they get sick; and
  • Approximately one in five surveyed workers (19%) had concerns about their own medical conditions, which put them at greater risk if infected with COVID-19.

Lower-income communities and communities of color have been disproportionately impacted during the pandemic. Latino immigrants, between the ages of 20 and 54, are nearly 11.6 times more likely to die from the virus than non-Latino Americans, according to a University of Southern California study.

Aracely Nava, fast-food worker and single mother living in Richmond, California, said she was constantly afraid of catching the virus while she worked at a San Francisco fast-food restaurant during the pandemic. “All the time people were coming in from the street without masks,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter. "They never put anyone by the door counting the number of people who came in to maintain a certain number. A manager was allowed to work for over a week (while) really sick with flu symptoms.”

Watch videos from our report authors and workers who voiced their concerns about health and safety in the workplace.

The report has real world implications and calls attention to the urgent policy needs to protect California workers. In light of these findings, ALC and Berkeley LOHP recommend expanding protections and benefits to workers, including through equitable vaccine access expanded paid sick leave and healthcare, enforced anti-retaliation laws, and safety net benefits regardless of immigration status

Other recommendations include:

  • Increasing labor law enforcement capacity, including increased staffing and resources at state and local agencies and greater accountability for violations;
  • Improving education and support for workers, including through multilingual and culturally appropriate information and accessible training for employers; and
  • Strengthening worker representation through unions, health and safety committees and other bodies, including through measures like the FAST Recovery Act.

Read the report.

In the news:

SF Chronicle: Low-wage workers in California say COVID protocols are lacking on the job
KQED: Low-Wage Workers Lack COVID Protections, Fear Retaliation, California Survey Shows
Business Insider: Low-wage Asian and Latinx workers struggled to get COVID-19 information and didn't feel comfortable reporting symptoms, survey finds
Mission Local: Asian and Latinx low-income workers weren’t given masks, fired for Covid-19 fears, report says