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Dying to Live: Low Wage Immigrant Workers Are Sustaining New York During The Pandemic, But At What Cost?

By Thomas Power

President Trump’s April proclamation suspending entry of certain immigrants during the COVID-19 outbreak and recovery formed another example of the federal government’s enduring antagonism of immigrants. It specifically highlighted the incongruence between America’s reliance on–and treatment of–immigrant workers, especially during times of crisis.

Federal and state pandemic relief measures have explicitly exempted many immigrant workers. Instead of “staying at home” or “sheltering in place,” low-wage immigrant workers throughout this pandemic have been forced to risk their lives delivering groceries, tending to the sick and elderly as home care attendants, and producing our food in factories and warehouses. For undocumented workers, loss of wages during this pandemic has not been a viable option.

Catholic Migration Services’ Immigrant Workers’ Rights Program has received hundreds of COVID-related calls these last three months from immigrant workers. Most can generally be divided into two distinct groups: individuals who lost their jobs due to the viral outbreak and shutdown of the City, and those who continue to work or have returned to work during the pandemic and have either contracted COVID-19, or have expressed significant fear or contracting the deadly virus.

After the virtual shutdown of New York City in mid-March, an unprecedented number of workers were laid-off or furloughed due to the outbreak. In response to the record numbers of newly unemployed, the federal government’s rollout of the CARES Act was lauded as incredible progress for the unemployment insurance (UI) framework. Not only did the new legislation temporarily expand benefits to independent contractors and freelancers, recipients could now receive up to 13 more weeks of benefits, and the benefit rates were increased across the board by $600 per week. The CARES Act also designated for “Economic Impact Payments,” direct aid to individuals under a certain income threshold. Despite the progress, individuals lacking valid work authorization in the United States do not qualify for any UI relief, and those without social security numbers did not receive a penny in direct aid. Over the course of this pandemic, we’ve spoken to countless workers who qualify for neither type of relief and cannot afford rent or groceries. Many of them continue in a daily struggle to survive.

Diego, 31, a server at a Queens restaurant, is one of those workers. He was laid off in late March due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He lives with his extended family of seven, all of whom have been without work since late March and do not qualify for UI. Already stretched thin financially, Diego and his family have not been able to pay rent since the outbreak and have been reliant on local pantries and social service agencies for food. They face imminent eviction after the city-wide 90-day moratorium is soon lifted, and are left without any meaningful options for their other needs.

Those who continue to work, or have returned to work, are genuinely frightened of contracting COVID-19, yet have no choice but to continue working during this crisis. These workers have been branded “essential” and are some of the real heroes of this pandemic, risking their lives to deliver necessary food, nourishment, and care to New Yorkers on a daily basis. Many of them, however, were explicitly exempted from wage replacement programs like UI and “Economic Impact Payments” because they are undocumented. This creates a truly grotesque paradox: survival depends on an ability to continue working, yet exposure to a deadly virus through work is a grave risk.

Luz, 60, a home care worker, finds herself in that paradox. She routinely logs round-the-clock, 24-hour shifts caring for a series of patients in their homes throughout the City. Constantly entering those patients’ homes makes her especially susceptible to the virus. The close quarters of her workspace, a New York City apartment, and the demands of her work, make social distancing impossible. To make matters worse, Luz’s employer won’t provide gloves and masks, so she’s forced to bring her own. Despite the risk, Luz is tethered to her job; her family’s well-being depends on her ability to keep a steady paycheck.

A recent report from the Center for Migration Studies of New York highlights America’s reliance on immigrant workers during this crisis. The report found that 74% of undocumented workers have labored during this pandemic in “essential” industries. It further estimated that in New York State, immigrants comprise 33% of health care sector workers, while across the country, 31% of agricultural workers, 21% of workers in warehousing, distribution, and fulfillment, 23% of transportation workers, and 28% of janitors and building cleaners (those who are doing disinfecting work) are immigrants.

Diego and Luz’s stories are unfortunately representative of many immigrant workers struggling to survive this pandemic. They highlight a terrifying dilemma for those who are undocumented, where they must risk their safety and health to keep their homes and put food on the table during this crisis.

As we pass three months of quarantine, immigrant workers are the enduring heartbeat of the City, sustaining New Yorkers who have been heeding the advice to self-isolate. They deliver groceries despite many feeling unsafe in stores. They work in the cramped factories that produce our food. They brave the confined quarters of the laundromats. They care for our ailing loved ones. It is through their labor that New York City has been able to flatten and bend the curve in the right direction.

In the coming weeks and months, workplaces throughout the City will begin to reopen. Now is the time for us to stand up for the immigrant workers who have sustained us during the pandemic. We must call for immediate action to ensure that employers are required to provide their employees the necessary protective equipment to keep our workers safe. Localities must provide adequate wage replacement for undocumented workers who have lost their income. Finally, to prevent massive displacement, we must immediately forgive unpaid rent from tenants struggling financially during this crisis. If we’re going to call workers “essential,” we must actually treat them as such.

* Although the stories are real, the names have been changed to protect the privacy of Catholic Migration Services’ clients.

Thomas Power is a Staff Attorney with the Immigrant Workers’ Rights Program at Catholic Migration Services.

Virtual Immigration Town Hall

Last week Catholic Migration Services and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest hosted a Virtual Immigration Town Hall via Facebook Live. Panelists discussed how COVID-19 is impacting tenants and workers, shared helpful resources with the immigrant community during this difficult time, and took questions from the audience. If you missed it, view the video below.

*The Virtual Immigration Town Hall begins at 00:09:00

Join Catholic Migration Services and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest for an Virtual Immigration Town Hall on…

Posted by Catholic Migration Services on Thursday, May 7, 2020

Caridades Católicas da respuesta exprés a una crisis inesperada

En un articulo en Nuestra Voz, el periódico hispano de la Diocesis de Brooklyn- informaron a la comunidad sobre los servicios que Catholic Migration Services siguen de brindar para trabajadores en medio de la pandemia del coronavirus.

De otro lado, Servicios Católicos de Migración reconoce el gran impacto que esta pandemia ha tenido entre los trabajadores, y aunque sus oficinas están cerradas, continúan brindando servicios legales de lunes a viernes de 9:00 a.m. a 5:00 p.m. a trabajadores inmigrantes y de bajos salarios a través de su línea de atención (877) 525-2267, donde puede solicitar ser atendido por un abogado que hable español.

Lea la historia completa en Nuestra Voz: Caridades Católicas da respuesta exprés a una crisis inesperada

Mayor announces more sector advisory councils to help reopening and recovery from COVID-19 pandemic

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently appointed Magdalena Barbosa, Managing Attorney with the Workers’ Rights Program at Catholic Migration Services to one of the City’s new sector advisory councils that will advise the City of New York on how to reopen from the COVID-19 crisis. Magda was appointed to the new advisory council on labor and workforce development alongside a group of distinguished individuals in New York City.

Media Coverage
Read the full story in AMNY: Mayor announces more sector advisory councils to help reopening and recovery from COVID-19 pandemic
Read the full press release from the Office of the Mayor: Mayor de Blasio Appoints Members to Sector Advisory Councils

Catholic Migration Services and Co-Counsel File Case on Behalf of Home Care Workers Seeking Justice in the Workplace

On April 8, 2020, Catholic Migration Services along with co-counsel at the firm of Eisner & Dictor, P.C., filed a case in the Southern District of New York on behalf of 19 home care workers, seeking millions of dollars of hard earned, yet unpaid wages. The workers are current and former employees of Avondale Care Group and were organized by the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), a partner organization that works with, and advocates on behalf of home care workers throughout New York City. For years, our clients logged 24-hour, round-the-clock shifts with Avondale, yet they were only ever paid for a fraction of their time worked.

In this moment of great crisis, where millions have been told to stay home or shelter in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, home care workers continue to put their lives on the line to care for the most vulnerable in our communities. To make matters even worse, they have not been provided the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to safeguard themselves and help slow the spread of disease.

We encourage allies who stand with workers to visit the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops at nmass.org to learn more about NMASS’s home care worker campaign and how you can donate to a fund that will be used to purchase PPEs for home care workers during this crisis. Stay tuned for more updates about our clients’ legal fight for justice.

 

 

 

Update from Catholic Migration Services Regarding Office Operations and Assisting Clients During COVID-19

Presione aquí para la versión en Español

Catholic Migration Services is continuing to assist existing and new clients during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak. However, we have limited our office operations to reduce health risks to visitors, staff and volunteers. For the health and safety of all, please do not come to our offices unless instructed to do so by a staff member of Catholic Migration Services.

For Individuals with Scheduled Appointments
If you already have an appointment scheduled to meet with someone at Catholic Migration Services, a staff member from our office will contact you to discuss holding the appointment by phone or rescheduling for a later date.

For Individuals Seeking Legal Assistance for the First Time
If you do not have an appointment scheduled and are seeking assistance, please see below for information about how to obtain immigration, housing or employment legal services.

Immigration
If you are not a client and are calling for immigration help, please call (718) 236-3000 in Brooklyn or (347) 472-3500 in Queens and leave a message. We will return your message and schedule a time for you to speak by phone with one of our attorneys or immigration counselors.

Housing
Please be advised that Housing Court has been closed since Tuesday, March 17th until further notice, except for emergencies such as illegal lockouts and emergency repairs. Please know that all evictions will be put on hold until further notice. If you are a Queens resident and have questions about evictions, rent or repair issues, please call (347) 472-3500 (Catholic Migration Services) or 311 (New York City help line).

For additional housing assistance, please contact:
Andrew Lehrer, Esq. – ext. 1026
Amy Collado, Tenant Organizer – ext. 1021
Ahren Lahvis, Paralegal – ext. 1027

Workers’ Rights
The Coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on workers. While our offices remain physically closed, Catholic Migration Services continues to provide critical legal services to low-wage and immigrant workers. In addition to providing advice and legal representation on general employment matters, such as wage theft, we are now also providing advice to workers directly impacted by this pandemic, including those with workplace health and safety concerns and those who have recently lost their jobs. Our hotline is open! To speak with an attorney, please call (877) 52-LABOR (52267) Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ¡Hablamos Español!

Events
The safety of our community is our priority at all times. As a result, Catholic Migration Services has suspended all events and outreach activities including our monthly community meetings at St. Sebastian Parish in Woodside. We encourage vulnerable individuals to exercise caution and stay safe. Thank you for your patience and understanding during this health emergency.

Additional Information
For additional updates, please regularly visit the organization website and social media channels:
www.catholicmigration.org
www.Facebook.com/CMSBQ
www.Twitter.com/CMSBQ
www.Instagram.com/CMSBQ

Download this update as a PDF.