Recovery Legislation Must Prioritize Immigrant Essential Workers

By Adewale Maye

More than a year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. economy is slowly recovering. While heroes abound who have contributed greatly to our nation’s road to recovery, essential workers have been particularly instrumental in ensuring the safety, security, and preservation of our economy and society. Despite their pivotal roles as caregivers, grocery store clerks, agricultural workers, and construction workers, these individuals are often the most exploited, underpaid, and least protected. The pandemic has exacerbated underlying problems for immigrant essential workers. 

In the United States, 69 percent of all immigrant and undocumented workers are employed among the 55 million workers in essential industries. Immigrant workers continue to experience disparate rates of financial insecurity and food insecurity due to very little federal aid during the pandemic, being burdened with low pay, benefits, and worker protections, as well as the longstanding consequences of institutionalized racism and discrimination. Essential workers, particularly those who are immigrants, have been crucial to keeping the nation functioning and deserve to be supported through equitable and comprehensive legislation offering a pathway to economic security. Congress can support immigrant essential workers and build a more equitable economic recovery by focusing on three key priorities:

Pass a Pathway to Citizenship

A pathway to citizenship offers undocumented workers security and stability that leads to improved family outcomes and boosts overall U.S. economic growth. Children particularly benefit when their parents have increased access to better-quality jobs and face less stress. And because economists have shown that a pathway to citizenship would increase wages and productivity for eligible immigrants and all American workers, legislation to do this would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and increase tax revenue. Congress should prioritize a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, as well as Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders who seek economic prosperity in a country to which they contribute so much.

Build Strong Worker Protections

Employer retaliation is a common and harmful worker rights’ violation that can have detrimental consequences for workers earning low wages, including immigrant essential workers. Immigrant workers, and especially those who are undocumented, are often employed in industries with significant labor standards violations and can face violations including harassment, intimidation, and retaliation. Immigrant workers can also be threatened with being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if they don’t cooperate with employers’ demands to not report workplace violations to labor agencies. 

All workers need strong worker protections, including access to collective bargaining. Enforcement of labor protections will ensure that these workers can be better protected from violations and have the tools and resources to maintain a safe working environment. Congress should protect workers by including strong labor standards, such as those included in the PRO Act, in a recovery package. Policymakers can also improve working conditions, create jobs, and bolster financial stability by directly investing in care workers, including child care and home care workers. 

Increase Wages and Access to Benefits

Without a livable wage or benefits like paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and fair scheduling, workers struggle to support their families financially and must often make the impossible choice between caring for a loved one or themselves and earning a paycheck. Essential workers, and particularly immigrant essential workers, need access to these benefits so they can better support themselves and their families. Congress should include paid family and medical leave in a recovery package so that all workers are protected from the economic instability that can occur when caregiving needs arise.

Although essential workers have received some recognition for their contributions, we desperately need comprehensive and equitable policies to support these workers and uplift them from poverty. Congress must prioritize the protection and socioeconomic advancement of the workers—and their families—who have sacrificed everything for our country’s security and safety.