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COVID-19: Racial Disparities Among Immigrant Workers

COVID-19: Racial Disparities Among Immigrant Workers

Growing up, I remember seeing my father come home from a hot Texas summer’s day of work, and he would go straight to the fridge to grab a fresh cold-water bottle. My father worked in landscaping for almost 20 years, and my mother worked as a domestic worker over the years. I couldn’t tell you how to make sure my parents were getting paid fair wages, had safe working conditions, were getting paid overtime, and were treated fairly in the workplace. I also did not know how to help my dad ask for a raise or even ask for vacation days. I did not realize how employee misclassification could lead employers to exploit their workers’ pay and labor. All those recollections led me to the Equal Justice Center. I was on a mission to reach as many immigrant workers as possible and inform them that they are entitled to fair wages and fair treatment in the workplace.

With COVID-19 disproportionately affecting black and brown communities in Texas and tremendously impacting their workplace and socioeconomic stability, we need policies to tackle these racial inequities for all working families. The pandemic is already generating adverse long-term effects on low-income families, with unemployment reaching an all-time high and COVID relief excluding mixed-status families.

The government left us scrambling at the state and federal level, and our communities were left alone. As a daughter of immigrant working parents, I had the painful duty to tell them that the stimulus relief will not include them. However, through organizations like United We Dream who held private fundraisers to raise money for millions of undocumented immigrants left out of the stimulus relief package, we could find some comfort for struggling families with no federal or state help.

Nevertheless, the pandemic has taken a toll on immigrant populations who are more highly affected by COVID-19. As a direct result of cultural and language barriers, high population-density home and work environments, multigenerational family living arrangements, limited access to healthcare and health insurance. Crowded immigration detention centers and an increased number of jobs in industries considered “essential” have increased their exposure risk. Immigrants also tend to live in some of the most affected cities and agricultural areas where some food processing plants have closed due to widespread virus transmission. Moreover, unsafe working conditions where employees work closely together for long hours and use cramped break areas make social distancing impossible. With a lack of paid sick leave or disincentives for employees to call in sick, these conditions increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the workplace.

These workers are ineligible to receive the expanded unemployment insurance benefits or the one-time stimulus payments disbursed under the CARES Act; they are also ineligible for other existing safety net programs. The CARES Act also excludes anyone who lives with anyone who uses an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) to file taxes, making it hard for undocumented immigrants and the estimated 5.9 million of their children U.S. Citizens to receive help. At the same time, undocumented Latinx workers make up a considerable part of the essential workforce—especially in the food-processing and agriculture industries, which have been deemed essential and have put food on our tables during the pandemic.

It is also crucial to shed light on Latina workers’ struggle who heavily represent industries most affected by COVID-19 shutdowns. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Latina workers are more likely to be single heads of households and single parents who sustained losses of jobs and income due to the pandemic, resulting in housing and food insecurity in the past months.

My goal as a community advocate at the Equal Justice Center is to make sure we make legal aid more accessible to the working class in the Dallas metroplex and the state of Texas. By working alongside attorneys in the vetting process to represent low-income workers during the pandemic. The systemic hurdles we have to jump to provide immigrants resources has become more complex to tackle than before. We have experienced record-high calls from workers being furloughed and calling on behalf of their employers for not complying with county regulations.

But for decades, immigrant workers have endured systemic racism in the workplace through gender wage gaps, underpaid wages, and retaliation. Workers threatened to be turned to ICE by their employer for demanding fundamental employment rights. This inequity stops many workers from ever taking legal action against their employers for not being authorized to work. Although, undocumented workers in the United States have employment rights, despite their immigration status. Under federal law, it is illegal to discriminate against any worker, regardless of immigration status.

Last summer, we were greeted with a significant victory towards advancing immigrant workers’ rights. On June 17, 2020, we managed to receive a favorable decision from SCOTUS on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals known as DACA. According to the Center for American Progress, about 27,000 DACA recipients are frontline workers in healthcare professions. Furthermore, we were able to keep DACA alive during the transition into a new administration from the Trump administration, so eagerly trying to end it.

Harsh immigration policies implemented under the Trump administration has made it difficult and discouraging for immigrants to seek healthcare due to cruel implementations like the Public Charge rule. This harmful and discriminatory policy has prevented immigrants from benefiting from safety-net programs like SNAP, certain types of Medicaid, and federal housing assistance because it might be detrimental when applying for permanent residency.

With the new Biden-Kamala administration, I anticipate new policies centered on eliminating black and brown health inequalities. Furthermore, we want to ensure that immigrant populations have access to healthcare services and other supportive services, including access to vaccinations during COVID-19 and future pandemics, regardless of immigration status.

According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, eight million Latinx workers are at higher risk of losing jobs due to working in industries affected by COVID-19, including meatpacking plants, restaurants, hotels, service-sector positions. Therefore, immigrant workers should not be taken advantage of or taken for granted. Immigrants have gotten the job done and—throughout this pandemic—have been the backbone towards keeping this country moving forward during a time of exponential need. Immigrants are essential and therefore deserve a future that ensures they’re included in a future stimulus bill and every kind of relief available to them too.

If you are a worker who wants to know your rights during the coronavirus pandemic, you can contact OSHA, the Department of Labor, and the National Labor Relations Board. Please reach out to the Equal Justice Center, Workers Defense Project, or Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid for local and statewide help.

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