The blog of the Urban Institute
October 9, 2020

Latinx Essential Workers Are the Backbone of Our Economy. How Can We Ensure They Aren’t Forgotten during Its Recovery?

COVID-19 has created wide health and economic disparities that disproportionally affect families like our own. As the daughters of Latinx immigrants and essential workers, we see firsthand that our family members and communities lack the supports they need to effectively protect themselves against the coronavirus and adapt to new work environments.

Jessica’s mom, a school-bus driver in New Jersey with preexisting health conditions, couldn’t work when schools shut down in the spring. But when schools opened up this fall, she started working again, transporting 30 to 50 kids every day. Despite her health concerns, and without the ability to work from home, she risks daily exposure to ensure she receives her paycheck. 

Similarly, Fernanda’s parents are both older than 50, have chronic health conditions, and work in the food service industry. Neither have stopped working since the pandemic began. Fernanda’s mom is a noncitizen who may be eligible to apply for citizenship in three years. Out of fear of jeopardizing her future status, she prefers to work two jobs to make ends meet, rather than apply for any kind of assistance—even if that increases her exposure to the coronavirus.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate the contributions and honor the sacrifices of all essential workers who have kept us safe and our economy afloat during this hardship. But we also think it’s necessary to acknowledge the unique challenges Latinx essential workers and their communities—some of which have connections to the immigrant experience—face, now and on the path to recovery.

What obstacles do Latinx essential workers face during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has made it obvious how essential jobs performed by low-wage workers in the agriculture, transportation, caregiving, grocery, waste management, and food service and processing fields are to our daily lives. These workers continue to perform their jobs, often despite minimal protections and compensation.

Latinx workers are overrepresented in the lowest-paying essential industries. And the trade-off for keeping a paycheck has been increased exposure to the coronavirus and a greater likelihood that it spreads within their homes and communities. The health risks have been compounded by the writ large financial hardships afflicting Latinx households. These hardships are being provoked by the unprecedented unemployment crisis that hit low-income Latinx workers the hardest, not to mention the barriers to safety-net coverage for immigrant and mixed-status families.

Latinx essential workers, their families, and their communities face unique challenges that affect their current and future well-being.

Finding a recovery path that benefits everyone

Latinxs are nearly 20 percent of the US population, making them increasingly consequential to the labor market. To ensure the country’s economic recovery from the pandemic creates equitable outcomes for this community, the public sector has a key role to play and could consider taking the following measures.

  • Include tax-paying immigrants in government assistance. A new economic relief package could include noncitizens who, despite lacking Social Security numbers, file federal income tax returns using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers. California and Washington have extended funds to immigrant communities by implementing philanthropic-government partnerships.
  • Dismantle harmful immigration policies. The Trump administration has expanded Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE’s) power to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants with no criminal background. Though the pandemic limited some of ICE’s operations, the agency announced it made more than 2,000 arrests during a six-week nationwide operation this summer and is preparing to conduct more targeted arrests in sanctuary cities. Additionally, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, many of whom are also Latinx essential workers on the front lines of COVID-19 response, continue to face an uncertain future following the recent Supreme Court decision that offers only a temporary solution and no pathway to citizenship.
  • Increase civic representation to empower Latinx communities. The Latinx population already faces a potential census undercount that could affect federal funding for critical services and congressional representation. And the upcoming presidential election will see a record 32 million Latinxs eligible voters, however fewer than 2 percent of local, state, and federal elected offices are held by Latinxs. Latinx representation in government would provide more opportunities to influence policy and programs to advocate for Latinx needs. This could help garner support for establishing protections and fair compensation standards in sectors that have been long undervalued and are overwhelmingly occupied by members of this community.  

People like our parents have been at the forefront of delivering vital services during this time of turbulence. We are overdue for policymakers, community leaders, and fellow residents to acknowledge the evidence and firsthand experiences of millions of Latinx workers and their families. We need to find ways to build a resilient and equitable future for this country that includes seats at the table for us.

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