Essential workers have kept our nation running during the Covid-19 crisis at extraordinary personal cost, bearing the emotional burden and health risks of potential daily exposure to a deadly virus. Yet nearly a year into this crisis, frontline workers remain under protected and undercompensated — especially the estimated more than 5 million undocumented workers in essential industries who have endured an additional fear: the possibility of deportation.
The daily danger essential workers face during this pandemic is more than a public health failure — it is a moral failure, and one we can finally address with a new president and Democratic majority in Congress. We must swiftly enact the full suite of rights, protections, and benefits all essential workers should have been guaranteed months ago, including by immediately acting to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers in the next Covid-19 relief package.
By one estimate by FWD.us, one in 20 essential workers in agriculture, housing, food services, and health care are undocumented immigrants. These workers — including those picking food on farms, working on too-fast lines at meatpacking plants, cleaning buildings, stocking grocery stores and providing home care and child care — fear for their own lives and worry about bringing the virus home to their loved ones, even as they are working on the frontlines to help their communities and the country survive a historic crisis. Per this same study, more than 70% of these workers have already lived in the United States for more than a decade. Yet they have little certainty about their ability to remain in the country.
The HEROES Act, passed by the House of Representatives in May, included work authorization and temporary deportation protection for undocumented immigrants working in critical infrastructure sectors like health care, education, and food and agriculture. President Joe Biden has now put forward a game-changing immigration proposal that goes even further by proposing a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people.
As we work to pass this important legislation, we must also immediately seize the opportunity to provide a fair path to citizenship for undocumented essential workers by including legalization in the next Covid-19 relief package to pass Congress.
There is more we must do to recognize the contributions of all essential workers. We must finally raise the minimum wage to $15 and eliminate the tipped and sub-minimum wage. And essential workers deserve robust hazard pay on top of their normal pay, in recognition of the extra risks they’re taking on to keep our country running. Too many employers, some with soaring profits, cut off hazard pay at arbitrary dates despite the pandemic continuing to rage. But pay alone isn’t enough.
Many essential workers have been put at heightened risk by employers that refuse to prioritize safety over profit by increasing output during outbreaks, or deflect responsibility for coronavirus outbreaks. The Trump administration abandoned all responsibility to workers and let big businesses know they’d face no accountability. The Biden-Harris administration is already taking action to change this by ordering enhanced worker-safety protections and enforcement of labor violations.
We’ll work with the administration to increase funding for Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforcement and look forward to the agency finally issuing a robust Emergency Temporary Standard, which would create enforceable health and safety protections for workplaces specific to the hazard of Covid-19. Workers also need strong whistleblower protections, so they can identify concerns about unsafe working conditions without facing retaliation. We’re glad President Biden has already called for enforcement against employers violating anti-retaliation principles.
Forcing families to choose between a paycheck and their health is wrong. We need to reinstate the federally subsidized mandate for paid sick leave and family and medical leave, without exceptions that leave some workers unprotected.
Coronavirus does not discriminate based on immigration status, and neither should our public health policies. All frontline workers should have access to vaccinations, including undocumented and uninsured workers. But health equity extends beyond just Covid-19: All essential workers should have access to the health care they need, regardless of immigration status.
Essential workers should also have access to free, reliable, high-quality childcare, which also means providing the emergency funding necessary to keep childcare providers in business. And we must ensure that workers’ right to organize, and their collective bargaining agreements, are protected.
Finally, if Congress provides federal support to industries employing essential workers, it must be conditioned on benefits flowing directly to those workers — retaining or increasing pay, hours, and benefits and providing for necessary worker-safety investments.
It is time for America to do right by the workers sacrificing so much for their communities and our country. We must act now to protect the health, economic security, and rights of all essential workers, including those who are undocumented immigrants.