NEW BEDFORD — Some were first generation immigrants from Quebec, Portugal and the Cape Verdean islands, drawn to the United States by the prospect of the American Dream. Others were from second- and third-generation families, forgoing their education to help support their families at an early age.
A countless number found work in the sturdy, two- and three-story brick mills of New Bedford’s once thriving textile and apparel industries. But in this last year, at least 49 died from COVID-19.
A full 15 percent of New Bedford’s pandemic deaths are tied to these industries — the largest occupational cluster, according to data from the state Registry of Vital Records and Statistics. They were stitchers, loom mechanics, fabric dyers and pressers. All had long since retired and were over the age of 70.
One was Clara DaSilva, who immigrated from Cape Verde in her early 20s and settled in the South End of New Bedford. She stitched men’s suit jackets for 40 years, said her son, Robert DaSilva, and took pride in pointing out the suits she had made when shopping with her children. She died of COVID-19 in April, among the first in New Bedford, at the age of 84.
Clara represents another grim statistic revealed in the data. She struggled with bouts of pneumonia and had long been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). And she isn’t alone. The state’s data reveals that more than 40 percent of the 170 former workers in these industries who died during the pandemic had similar respiratory issues, dying of pneumonia, COVID-19, or underlying conditions like emphysema and COPD — a rate more than four times the national average of 9 percent.
Textile and apparel workers account for 10 percent of all deaths, but 15 percent of COVID-19 deaths in New Bedford, indicating they were harder hit by the pandemic.
“It’s a smoker’s disease. She never smoked a day in her life,” Robert said, of Clara’s diagnosis with COPD. “You can make the connection that it could be related to her working in the factories for that long, but there is no concrete link.” Doctors told Robert that his mother’s respiratory issues may have been connected to her work, but he and his mother decided not pursue any testing to confirm.
Family members and medical experts alike are hesitant to claim that labor conditions are related to respiratory issues later in life, surfacing during the pandemic, which preyed on those with weakened respiratory systems. “She just always had a cough,” said Paul Silva, whose mother, Maria, worked as a stitcher for years and died of COVID-19 in November of 2020, adding that she was never officially diagnosed with any chronic respiratory illness.
Apparel workers alone comprised about a quarter of the city’s workforce through the height of the industry in the 1960s and ’70s. Most were stitchers and pressers. Several thousand more worked in the subsiding textile production and dyeing industry. The pandemic’s toll on these workers could be expected, based on the vast number of them, now elderly and more vulnerable to severe illness.
“The reason why there are big numbers [of COVID-19 deaths] is because there were a big number of these workers at the time,” said Joseph Thomas, a New Bedford historian and founder of Spinner Publications, which published a book on this era of industry. “I don’t think it has anything to do with their work.”
But medical experts interviewed by The Light say the data raises complex questions.
“It does suggest an over-representation of respiratory disease, more than can be expected in non-textile occupations,” said Dr. David Christiani of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, who has spent more than three decades studying the occupational health hazards of textile workers around the world.
Some of the chemicals that were commonly used in these industries are known to cause chronic respiratory issues, Christiani said. Many chemicals in dye have been linked to cancer and other respiratory conditions. Formaldehyde, used to treat the fabric in wrinkle-free dress shirts through a process known as “perma-press,” prior to stitching, was also known to cause respiratory illness. Formaldehyde is no longer used in treating fabric, industry leaders of today said.
The New Bedford Light interviewed about a dozen families of textile workers who died of COVID-19. Each story is uniquely reflective of mid-century New Bedford, a period of vast economic and cultural transition. It marked a proud chapter of industry, when clothes distributed around the country were tagged “Made in New Bedford” to boast their quality.
Cloth manufacturing ushered in a new wave of growth in the city after the collapse of the traditional textile spinning mills. It provided steady employment for many, who were able to raise families and plant roots in the city for generations to come.
“It was a job largely performed by immigrants who really were building their life in America. And doing it through hard work,” said Thomas, the New Bedford historian. “It was a job people weren’t necessarily proud of, but the area became well known for manufacturing fine clothing. It branded the area. We should be proud of that.”
But the working conditions were also demanding and offered little pay. Though it provided a living, it wasn’t an easy living, he said. Many first- and second-generation immigrant families, lured by the prospect of better opportunities, soon discovered the roads promised to be paved with gold weren’t paved at all.
One worker was Leonora Camara, who stitched men’s suit jackets at Cliftex Corp. for more than 50 years. Her parents were immigrants from Portugal, and she and her six sisters found work in the trade as early as 16 years old. “It was a good-paying job for women who didn’t have an education,” said her niece and closest surviving relative, Iris Begley. Leonora died of COVID-19 in June at the age of 90.
Another was Natalia Branquinho. She and her husband Raul immigrated from the Azores in 1978, settling in the North End. Natalia found work operating a stitching machine at the Calvin Klein factory, while Raul cleaned floors at The Oaks nursing home.
“Life was harder in America than it was in Portugal,” said their daughter, Ana Pinto, a certified nursing assistant in New Bedford. “They thought they were going to have a better life. That was just a dream.” Natalia and Raul both died of COVID-19 in January of 2021, and December of 2020. Natalia was 86 and Raul was 85. They had been married for more than 60 years.
But occupational disease is harder to define than labor conditions. Occupational disease often goes unreported or unconfirmed by workers’ compensation, they say. For this reason, they say it’s unclear if exposure to chemicals led to respiratory issues later in life, expressed in the trend of these workers suffering disproportionately from COVID-19 and other respiratory issues.
“Hear no evil; see no evil,” said Eric Frumin, formerly a lawyer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, which at the time represented apparel and textile workers nationwide, including those in New Bedford. “The system is designed to deny workers and doctors the knowledge in order for these cases [occupational disease] to be recognized in workers’ compensation claims.” Frumin is currently the Safety and Health Director of Change to Win, a federation of labor unions.
Today, the bulk of these industries have moved out of New Bedford, first pushing South then moving to China due to cheaper labor. But a few remain today. The list includes Joseph Abboud, maker of high-end men’s suits and clothing; Niche Inc., maker of military grade parachutes; and Brittany Dyeing and Printing Co., a textile dyeing and finishing company specializing in military camouflage for the armed forces.
Industry leaders are quick to point out that working conditions in these trades, though a fraction of their height in the 1960s, are safer today, with less exposure to chemicals. None returned a request for comment. Still, Frumin says, barriers to reporting occupational disease and claims for worker’s compensation remain an ongoing issue for many industries.
“It’s worth examining,” Frumin said, of former textile and apparel industry workers suffering disproportionately from COVID-19. “Occupational diseases are the subject of very little research. The pandemic made that all the more clear.”
But for the families of those like Clara DaSilva, questions remain. Robert, Clara’s son, said his family would like to know if there is a link, but does not wish to pursue any form of legal action or compensation.
“Did she pass earlier than we expected? Yes she did,” he said. But Clara died just three weeks after her husband, Henry, the love of her life. “She lived a good life,” Robert said. “And we are at peace with that.”
Work in the mills may have allowed New Bedford residents to make a living, but it was never a good living for most. And it was never an easy life.
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