July 1, 2020 — Three months have passed since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. From that moment, life, as we knew it began to change: we have witnessed economic shutdowns, the closure of borders, and restrictions on our rights. Some people have the privilege of working from home. However, for others, self-isolation was never an option. Those who were deemed essential or front-line workers had to accept the risk of contagion as part of their working conditions.
The Economic Policy Institute estimates that in the U.S. only 16.2% of Hispanics can work from home, the lowest percentage among racial and ethnic groups in the country. The demographic profile of front-line workers, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research, shows that workers of color are 41.2% of the essential workforce. Additionally, 16.3% of frontline workers are Hispanic and one in six is an immigrant. It is not surprising that after 3 months of working on the front lines, the rates of infection are so high in Latinx communities, with 34% of cases nationwide, even though they represent only 18% of the total population. Even more grim, is the fact that front-line workers are not being compensated for their sacrifice. Health insurance does not cover the full medical costs for sick workers with COVID-19.
The economic downturn continues to be of major concern. An estimated 61% of Latino workers in the U.S. are suffering the economic consequences of the pandemic. In June, the number of unemployed Latinos dropped from a record 18.9% to 17.6%, as a result of states reopening their economies. However, these attempts to revive the US economy by opening up the states are resulting in increased cases of infection. At the same time, there are no actions to protect families from evictions, even as many struggle to pay rent or mortgage loans.
The economic reopening in Mexico and in countries of northern Central America has generated debate for similar reasons. In June, Mexico began the economic reopening despite the high number of infections. There is growing concern about the impact that decision will have on health, considering that in June there was an increase in infections in young children. In El Salvador, there is a worrying increase of cases in care homes for minors who are in government custody; while in Guatemala, juvenile detention centers are operating over capacity and are overcrowded. Civil society maintains careful monitoring of the infection rate among children. Concern about the risk of contagion in detention is the reason why a judge in California ordered that children being kept in immigrant detention centers with their families, be released.
In the U.S., the current administration continues its efforts to end healthcare legislation, better known as Obamacare, which expanded coverage for many people. This is happening despite the fact the pandemic shows the need to guarantee access to health care and that millions of workers are losing their health coverage as they become unemployed. In fact, in May, nearly 500,000 people obtained medical coverage under this law. The Trump administration and 18 Republican governors submitted their briefs to the Supreme Court, in the case California v. Texas, in which they question the legality of the Affordable Care Act. If the lawsuit is successful, 23 million people, including many essential workers, would be left without medical coverage, which would be devastating.
The pandemic presents many challenges, but it is important to remember that violation of workers’ rights is not a consequence of the pandemic, but rather the result of structural systems that leave workers unprotected, ignoring their sacrifices and denying their essential roles in our national economies and our communities. Despite being key actors helping manage the crisis, migrant workers and their families have been excluded from economic assistance packages in response to Covid-19, leaving them impoverished and aggravating the structural vulnerabilities they were already experiencing. Now is the time to value and protect frontline workers.