the Pandemic and the plight of ten million workers

Major disasters (COVID-19, Katrina, 9/11, Chicago Fire of 1871) tend to expose pre-existing social-economic distress (such labor exploitation) and accelerate trends that may have been stymied beforehand (such as in land use and industrial organization). Let’s see how this works today with especially vulnerable immigrant workers.

The pandemic added to the vulnerability of a workforce of at least ten million immigrant workers on the lower scale of education and social skills with Americans, many of whom work in essential jobs, and who work outside the mainstream of labor protections.

These immigrants are the most vulnerable of the roughly 17 million foreign born non-citizen workers in the U.S. today.

This workforce does some essential functions such as food supply and healthcare. It includes half of workers in meat processing and agriculture. It provides perhaps one quarter of the labor for restaurants, hotels and recreational services. It includes support and lower level patient care staff for healthcare. It is likely over 75% of this workforce would not pass the public charge tests introduced in February 2020.

They have some or all of four characteristics of being outside the mainstream of the American workforce. They (1) have partial or no access to conventional safety nets such as health insurance, sick leave and unemployment insurance, (2) may be socially isolated perhaps due to language, (3) are at daily or contingent risk of deportation or visa non-renewal, and (4) may be at heightened risk of COVID-19 infection at work, as virtually none of them work can at home.

All told this vulnerable workforce numbers may be ten million, just for these cited industries.

The pandemic has probably accelerated a pre-existing trend in immigration away from low skilled workers. Trump and Senate republicans want to move this trend faster by putting a full stop to virtually all immigration. They do not know how to do so without crippling these employment sectors, or forcing these sectors step up with adequate health, sick leave and other benefits, and increasing wages significantly.

Thanks to Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute for data and insights.

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