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Immigrant Workers on the Frontlines

Written By The Shapiro Law Group on May 14, 2020

Immigrants disproportionately make up frontline workers in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, not just as healthcare professionals, but also as grocers, clerks, cleaners, and janitors. These immigrants are serving in frontline jobs during the pandemic while the healthcare system is overwhelmed and many of them already lack healthcare, job security, and other protections afforded to other individuals.

Immigrant Share of Frontline Workers

A study conducted by the think tank New American Economy found that immigrants can compose between 40.1 and 51 percent of healthcare workers (in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami). However, in other metropolitan areas, immigrants compose between 18 and 26.4 percent of the healthcare workforce. These areas include San Francisco, Houston, Boston, Dallas-Forth Worth, and Seattle. Moreover, nationally, immigrants compose 16.4 percent of healthcare workers.

Cities Anticipate Shortage of Healthcare Workers

Cities, think tanks, and experts have warned that the United States is short on a broad range of healthcare workers. Indeed, in 2018 there were 12.3 healthcare jobs open per unemployed healthcare worker. Further, for positions that require more training, such as physicians and nurses, the gap was even larger – 27 open positions for each unemployed practitioner. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated that trend.

Roles Immigrant Healthcare Workers Fill

Further, immigrant healthcare workers fulfill vital roles in hospitals. During any medical emergency, but especially during a pandemic, clear communication with patients is vital. Immigrant healthcare workers often serve as translators for other physicians or nurses or can serve their patients directly speaking bilingually.

For example, in New York, 75 percent of physicians, surgeons, and respiratory therapists, speak more than one language, which is crucial during a pandemic. Immigrant healthcare workers are very effective at serving their communities.

Frontline Workers

However, many of these immigrants are also going to work without adequate protective personal equipment. While healthcare workers’ struggles are well-documented, less attention is paid to grocers, clerks, and janitors. These roles are designated essential; however, many of these positions lack adequate protective equipment. Moreover, immigrants are also vulnerable to abuses by their employers because they lack the same protections are other residents. The Administration’s orders also make it more difficult for immigrants to obtain protections as it made evident by its latest designation that meat processing plants are critical national infrastructure. Those factories mostly employ immigrant labor and, so far, are failing to provide adequate equipment or to impose sufficient social distancing.