Undocumented Workers Are Hit Harder by COVID-19 but Getting Less Help

Yingying Zeng, doctoral student in the Center for Social Development at the Brown School


Undocumented immigrants are a sizable share of the frontline workers fighting against the coronavirus in healthcare and supporting industries. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues they are facing unprecedented challenges but receiving less assistance.

During 2012 to 2016, about 11.3 million undocumented immigrants were living in the United States, and 67 percent of those age 16 or older are employed. They represent a significant share of the U.S. labor force, especially in industries like agriculture, construction, and food and general services. Yet, without a Social Security number and other required documents, they are ineligible for most federal assistance programs or even a bank account COVID-19 is worsening this vulnerability. Help is urgently  needed to provide them with translated information, financial services, and healthcare to protect them as they perform work that is now seen as essential for all.

By 2018, nearly 280,000 undocumented workers were filling jobs in the healthcare industry, such as nursing assistants, cleaners and building maintenance workers. They play critical supporting roles that keep the medical system running. In New York, the epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States, almost one in three delivery people are undocumented.  Undocumented workers stock food at grocery stores and pick strawberries.

Like millions of other workers in the United States, many undocumented workers have jobs that cannot be performed from home while they shelter. However, being exposed to the coronavirus without adequate protection could more disastrous for them than for their U.S. peers. Many undocumented immigrants have no health insurance. The Kaiser Family Foundation  estimates that in 2018, among the nonelderly population, 45% of undocumented immigrants were uninsured compared to 23% of lawfully present immigrants and 9% U.S. citizens. Working under COVID-19 increases their likelihood of being sick, but their chances of being treated are lower. What’s more, undocumented immigrants fear that seeking health care or visiting a hospital will draw the attention of immigration authorities, jeopardizing their green card application and heightening the risk of deportation.

While working is full of risks, being suspended from work causes struggles, too. Many undocumented workers hold the sorts of jobs most severely affected by the coronavirus –jobs in hotels, restaurants, and other tourism-related businesses. Those who are furloughed cannot claim unemployment benefits or access any of the trillions of dollars in aid packages. Financial hardship, health risks, and mental stress, push the undocumented workers to the edge.

This crisis is an opportunity to increase services and advocate for the undocumented community. Undocumented workers should be equipped with  information about COVID-19 and resources to protect them. A team-based strategy is needed – one that incorporates immigration attorneys and mental health workers. Translated materials or interpreters can ensure that those who lack English proficiency receive critical information.

Although an increasing number of banks have started accepting alternatives to Social Security numbers, more accessible financial services are needed to improve the long-term financial well-being of undocumented workers. A checking or savings account can provide a secure place to receive and save money. Because most of the undocumented are ineligible for unemployment assistance from the government, emergency saving should be highlighted in financial education for undocumented workers. Emergency savings can function as buffer during a financial crisis.

For the long run, policymakers should consider expanding healthcare, unemployment assistance, and financial aid for undocumented immigrants, who also pay taxes and contribute to the economy. The coronavirus will fade eventually, but the uncertainties of today’s world continue to grow. It is more important than ever to build a long-term financial security system for U.S. families, and this system should include undocumented workers.

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