ISSUES & TRENDS: Impact of COVID-19 on Immigrant Workers

ISSUES & TRENDS: Impact of COVID-19 on Immigrant Workers

ISSUES & TRENDS: Impact of COVID-19 on Immigrant Workers

Type of and Need for Employment Drives Disparate COVID-19 Outcomes for Immigrants

Here is my long overdue “Part II” of my blog on the impacts of COVID-19 on immigrant workers and families. I’ll first start by looking at economics for Latinos. A recent report published by The Pew Research Center this month notes that “the unemployment rate for Hispanics increased from 4.8% in February to a peak of 18.5% in April before dropping to 14.5% in June, non-seasonally adjusted,” noting that these levels exceed those of the Great Recession. The report adds that “Hispanic women have experienced an especially steep rise in their unemployment rate, which jumped from 5.5% to 20.5% between February and April 2020. By comparison, the unemployment rate for Hispanic men rose from 4.3% to 16.9% during this time.”

The report analyzes data through June 2020. Around this time, the New York Times and L.A. Times both published articles about the impact of COVID-19 on Latino workers. A May 22, 2020 article in the L.A. Times (He’s diabetic. He works a high-risk job. But to pay rent, he has no choice) tells the story of a medical maintenance technician who left a higher paying job in a hospital for a lower paying job at small clinic to reduce his risk for infection, due to the fact that he is diabetic. His wife, a housekeeper, is out of work. Because they are undocumented, they don’t qualify for COVID-related economic relief programs. While the Trump administration and its supporters advocate for opening the economy, it will be workers like the individual highlighted in the L.A. Times article who will be put at risk to do so, and they won’t be getting any recognition or compensation for putting themselves in harm’s way. The article notes that 10% of California workers are undocumented immigrants (1.75 million people), and that they are “overrepresented in providing essential services such as healthcare, food and construction.”

A June 26, 2020 story in the New York Times (Many Latinos Couldn’t Stay Home. Now Virus Cases Are Soaring in Their Communities) noted the impact of “having to work” on Latinos (i.e., higher infection rates and higher hospitalizations and deaths as a result). The article looks at the situation in California, noting that rates of COVID-related infections and deaths are higher for Latinos than their representation in the population (currently 38.9% of the population but 58.4% of cases and 46.7% of deaths). This article highlights a frontline worker at a food processing factory who decided that she had to keep working so that she wouldn’t lose her job and her income. She, like many of her co-workers, ended up contracting the virus.

The L.A. Times article also highlights the situation in other states, at the time the article was published, noting that Latinos in North Carolina represent 10% of the population but 46% of infections and in Wisconsin represent 7% of the population and 33% of cases. Drawing on anecdotal data (and not scientific research, because data collection is sparse and not uniformly collected), the article notes that “during the lockdown, millions of Latino workers kept a bare-bones economy running: at the cutting tables of food-processing plants, as farmhands, as hospital orderlies, food preparers, supermarket workers and in many other jobs deemed essential. And they brought the virus home to often cramped living quarters, compounding the spread.”

The situation for Latinos in Texas was summarized by The Texas Tribune in a July 30, 2020 article (co-published with ProPublica) entitled, It cost me everything”: Hispanic residents bear brunt of COVID-19 in Texas.” They note that (at the time of publication), Latinos represented 48% of COVID-related deaths in the state while only comprising 40% of the population. Among the reasons cited in the article to try to explain the disparity are that:

  • Latinos are more likely to work in the service industry;
  • Latinos are more likely to live in multi-generational households;
  • Latinos are less likely to have health insurance; and
  • Latinos are more likely to have compounding health conditions.

The adverse outcomes for Latinos in Texas were exacerbated by the fact that Texas was one of the first states to “re-open” the economy and is the largest state that refused to expand healthcare for low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act.

In Austin, the critical nature of the impact on the Latino Community came to light when the Statesman reported in mid-May (Coronavirus hitting Austin Latinos harder than most, data show) that Latinos represented 62% of COVID-related hospitalizations while only making up 34% of the population. The percentage of hospitalizations for Latinos eventually reached 70% on June 1st. After an outcry from Latino leaders, measures aimed at addressing this disparity were identified and implemented by local health authorities.

A coalition of Latino-led organizations advocated for: increased and targeted testing (particularly in zip codes with high concentrations of cases); the hiring of bilingual contact tracers; options for quarantining outside of the home once testing positive; distribution of PPE in zip codes with high concentrations of cases; economic relief programs for workers that could be accessed regardless of immigration status; and a public education campaign to publicize about the importance of adhering to preventive measures  coronavirus. As of August 2nd, the percentage of overall hospitalizations that are Latino decreased from 70% to 54%. That level of hospitalization is still disproportionate, but it is much improved. As long as Latinos are over-represented in the job classes that are “essential,” then the level of infection, hospitalizations and death will also be disproportionate (as they currently are).

The above-outlined conditions and their causes, thereof, suggest certain strategies/actions be pursued to better engage and serve the Latino population.  Many of these strategies/actions are outlined in a list of recommendations that the Austin Latino Coalition presented to the City of Austin in early June. While these recommendations consider issues affecting immigrant workers, it probably is worth looking at what barriers may arise with engaging and serving that specific sub-population of the Latino community.

The Urban Institute published a blog in mid-July entitled, Strategies from Houston and Las Vegas Show How Local Leaders Can Support Immigrants during COVID-19, that highlights key strategies that local leaders should consider pursuing if they want to more effectively serve immigrants with their COVID-19 response efforts. Strategies include:

  • Improve messaging and information about the public charge rule.
  • Coordinate strategically across public agencies, community-based organizations, and other entities working with or on behalf of immigrant families.
  • Build a robust legal aid network that has the resources and cultural and linguistic capacity to serve immigrants.
  • Build authentic trust between governments, nonprofit agencies, and immigrants, as this is the bedrock of effective and inclusive support for their communities.

Bullets 1 & 4 are inter-related as are bullets 2 and 3, so I’ll explain the way in which I see them as inter-connected. Bullets 2 & 3 call attention to the need for better coordination of services to immigrant communities (to ensure that family needs are met holistically and more efficiently) and for providing adequate funding for services (like legal aid and language access) that can help community members understand their legal rights and the avenues available to them to access services. Such a system could help address bullet 4 which stems from destructive immigration policy changes and enforcement at the federal level and the unwieldy system of social service provision that exists at the local level. This lack of trust and lack of coordination of services makes the first bullet nearly impossible. The first strategy listed underscores that there are many different categories of immigration status with each having varying degrees of eligibility for services. The lack of clarity as to who can access what programs and services leads people to not seek out services for which they qualify which can have detrimental consequences for these individuals, families and their local community.

The pandemic provides an opportunity to think critically about current practices and to seek innovative solutions. When we reach the new “normal,” local governments will still be challenged to serve immigrant communities. Now is the time think about systemic changes that can help to more effectively meet the immediate needs relating to the pandemic as well as the needs of immigrant families on an on-going basis, post-pandemic.

Raul Alvarez, CAN Executive Director