Ulises García went from being a waiter to working at a laundromat. Yelitza Esteva used to do manicures and now delivers groceries. Maribel Torres swapped cleaning homes for sewing masks.
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated sectors of the economy dominated by immigrant labor: Restaurants, hotels, office cleaning services, in-home childcare and hair and nail salons, among others, have seen businesses shuttered as nonessential. The Migration Policy Institute found that 20% of the U.S. workers in vulnerable industries facing layoffs are immigrants, even though they only make up 17% of the civilian workforce.
And some of those immigrants, those without social security numbers, are unable to access any of the $2.2 trillion package that Congress approved to offer financial help during the pandemic.
The economic meltdown has forced many immigrants to branch out to new jobs or adapt skills to meet new demands generated by the virus. Those immigrants who are able to find new jobs say the possibility of catching the virus makes them nervous.
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“I wonder sometimes if I should quit because I don’t feel comfortable working, when the virus is everywhere,” said García, a former waiter who now works at the laundromat in Brooklyn selling detergent, bleach or fabric softener.
“The problem is that no one knows for how long this will last,” he added.
For Venezuelan immigrant Yelitza Esteva there was no option other than to work after she lost the $2,100-per-month salary she earned at a Miami hair salon.
Her husband also lost his job at a house remodeling company. Besides rent and bills, they send money to at least seven family members in Venezuela.
“I was terrified. I was left with nothing,” said the 51-year-old immigrant, who left Venezuela in 2015 to seek asylum.
Now, Esteva and her husband work for the grocery delivery service Instacart and make an average of $150 per day, working more than 12 hours daily.
“I am very, very fearful,” said Esteva, who applies anti-bacterial lotion constantly while shopping at the supermarkets. “I trust God, who is protecting us.”
Most green-card holders can benefit from unemployment insurance and from the economic stimulus package. Some immigrants on a temporary work permit, like those applying for asylum, can also get unemployment insurance and the new relief checks.
Immigrants in the country illegally can’t access the stimulus help or unemployment benefits even if they pay taxes. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, however, announced that his state will give cash to immigrants living in the country illegally who are hurt by the coronavirus, offering $500 apiece to 150,000 adults.
Some cities in the country are pushing similar efforts: Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, have both set up bridge funds that are open regardless of immigration status. Austin, Texas, has a fund that will be used in part to help people left out of federal relief.
Diana Mejía, health and safety coordinator for an interfaith organization that helps immigrants, Wind of the Spirit, says day laborers have shown up near the train station in Morristown, New Jersey, for years to wait to be picked up by construction and landscaping companies.
Now, Mejía says she sees new faces.
“Many used to work at restaurants. Also, for construction companies that closed,” she said.
In New York, Maribel Torres, a 47-year-old Mexican immigrant used to clean apartments, but tenants stopped calling her when the pandemic started. Her husband, a cook, lost his job when the restaurant he worked at closed.
Now, with support from MakerSpace, a collaborative work space full of tools and materials that people can learn to use, and La Colmena, a non-profit that helps day laborers, she is sewing masks from home.
Torres, along with three other immigrant women who do this work with her, will donate some masks and sell others. So far, they have sold about 300 online. A young day laborer who also lost his job has been making the deliveries.
“I feel that we are helping, and we plan to make a little money too,” said Torres.
Leymar Navas, a former attorney in Venezuela, was working as a restaurant cashier in Miami before the virus outbreak. But the sushi shop closed its doors in March, almost at the same time that her husband and her two adult sons also lost their jobs.
After a desperate search, she found a part-time job for a disinfecting company that cleans bank ATMs.
“Nobody expected this,” said the 47-year-old asylum seeker. “But any job is decent as long as you bring food to the table.”
According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in March, around half (49%) of Hispanics surveyed say they or someone in their household has taken a pay cut or lost a job – or both – because of the COVID-19 outbreak, compared with 29% of white people and 36% of black people.
A recent analysis from Pew based on Census statistics found that about 8 million Hispanic workers were employed in service-sector positions that are at higher risk of job loss.
Many of the immigrants with new jobs now say they feel grateful to have a job amid the pandemic, even if it means putting their own health at risk.