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.