There is something unspeakably sad about the fact that so many of the COVID-19 deaths in New Bedford were textile or apparel factory workers.
The textile factories, of course, were once inherently dangerous places to work with rows upon rows of cotton looms infusing the air with a filmy dust. The scientific studies have long since established that those textile mills, which dominated the city’s workforce in the first half of the 20th century, caused lung diseases like COPD.
Most of the elderly New Bedford residents who died of COVID-19, however, worked in apparel factories, which were far less dangerous places than textile mills, according to Dan Georgianna, the retired UMass Dartmouth economics professor who spent much of his career writing about city mills.
The COVID victims mostly worked in the clothing mills, which came to the city later, in the second half of the 20th century, and though like any factory setting, probably had some associations with lung disease, they were not the lethal places that the cotton mills were.
Georgianna said the apparel mills were nevertheless places where people worked long hours for low pay. They were often women working a second shift after taking care of their families during the day. Work in the mills may have allowed New Bedford residents, many of them immigrants, to make a living but it was never a good living for most workers. And it was never an easy life.
State data would seem to back that up. Records show that more than 40 percent of the 170 former workers in these industries who died in New Bedford during the pandemic had similar respiratory issues — expiring of pneumonia, COVID-19, or underlying conditions like emphysema and COPD. That’s more than four times the national average of 9 percent.
“Certainly, the mills were not a healthy place to be,” said Georgianna.
“Working long hours and working the second shift is not good for you.”
So, it has been soul-crushing for the families of these mill workers who led such hard lives to see their parents and loved ones experience the sad, lonely deaths of COVID-19.
“I’m still so heartbroken over it,” said Suzanne Braga, who lost her 92-year-old uncle, Charlie Correia to the pandemic. Charlie was not just any uncle but a widower for whom Braga was the principal caregiver the last 15 years of his life. He lived in a separate section of her own home.
Correia had worked repairing the machines at Dartmouth Finishing, a textile mill when he was young and middle-aged, and Braga says she believes he lost his hearing to the machines’ roar, as well as became crippled with rheumatoid arthritis due to his hands working on the looms. He retired in his mid-50s and by his early 90s was totally dependent on the care of Braga and his home-care attendant.
Braga said she had tried her best to protect her uncle from COVID, ending her household’s dinner sharing time every evening, but in the end, he caught it and was dead within a week.
Georgianna said the story of the mill workers is the story of low-income workers in general. They often work in factories that are hot or dusty and poorly ventilated. They frequently have poorer health insurance, or very little access to health insurance in general.
Even today, the relatively small factories that remain in the city are not usually great places to work, Georgianna said. “They’re still pretty horrible.”
“I think factory work in general, especially non-union factory work, is not good for you,” he said.
Over the course of the last few decades, many of the mills where the city’s forefathers and foremothers worked so hard have been turned into handsome apartments and senior living places. Others have become artists’ lofts and entertainment venues.
But we can romanticize these factories. As local historian Peggi Medeiros once told me, the mills were great things for the mill owners, not so much for the mill workers.
So many in this noble generation of New Bedford mill workers have now died of COVID-19. Perhaps we will find they even died from COVID because of lung-related conditions related to their work.
It is without doubt that they led weary lives and never made much money. Yes, they sent their kids to school and many of them went on to live middle-class lives, but the factory workers themselves did not.
For these mill workers to come to such lonely, painful deaths from this horrible infectious disease seems more than unfair.
An analysis of New Bedford death certificates reveals a surprising cluster of deaths among elderly residents who worked for decades when the textile and apparel industry was at its peak.
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