The Invisible Essential Workers of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought about major changes and new challenges to our communities. In the course of these uncertain times, healthcare workers and first responders have often been recognized, and rightfully so, for their essential services during the pandemic. Without their services, disease would prevail in our communities; for this reason, we should thank them for their tireless efforts. However, society should also acknowledge the important roles that less visible essential workers serve amid this global crisis, keeping our country and communities operating.

According to an American Community Survey, essential workers represent about 70 percent of the United States labor force. This includes a group of essential workers known as “frontline” workers. These workers earn lower wages on average and “come disproportionately from socio-economically disadvantaged groups compared to the overall workforce” (Blau et al., 2020). “Frontline” workers comprise grocery stores employees, agricultural and immigrant farm workers, maintenance crews, production and food processing workers, and truck drivers, to name a few. Without doubt, these workers perform crucial roles in society, especially now during this pandemic, and thus they, too, merit recognition. Indeed, the services these “frontline” workers provide are vital in keeping our communities running.

Throughout this pandemic, every essential worker, including all the less visible essential workers, has contributed to keeping our hospitals and communities safe, clean, and functional. One specific group of direct healthcare frontline personnel includes approximately 30,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, whose future is uncertain given the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling. Other less visible COVID-19 essential workers include hospital cleaning staff and maintenance workers, who have kept clinics, hospitals, and buildings safe. Also, truck drivers have delivered many vital goods to and from us. Agricultural and immigrant farm workers have continued to supply us with fresh produce to feed our families. Workers at grocery stores have kept shelves stocked and helped us in purchasing necessary items and foods to sustain our families. Fast food workers have served us in their drive-thrus and their cooks have provided our families with warm meals. They do all of this and more while risking exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

Furthermore, not only are “frontline” workers often overlooked amid this global crisis, but also many of them belong to low socio-economic status, racial or ethnic minorities, or undocumented groups. These statuses present even more nuanced problems for them to face in addition to their already apparent high risk of exposure to the virus. Due to underlying comorbidities such as diabetes, crowded living spaces in urban areas, and the nature of jobs they hold (typically in service or transportation), this population may be at an even greater risk of contracting the virus and may even suffer from higher morbidity rates (Hooper, 2020). Additionally, recent reports have uncovered significant disparities in the impact of COVID-19, with undocumented immigrants being an at-risk group often unaccounted for. What is worse, these immigrants are less likely to have access to health care, putting them at a particularly treacherous predicament (League of United Latin American Citizens, 2020).

Unquestionably, many of the jobs carried out by undocumented immigrants greatly contribute to keeping our communities functional and the U.S. economy afloat. While undocumented immigrants are putting their lives on the line for our country, the backlash from our government’s immigration policies and subsequent surrounding rhetoric are felt by these individuals. Certainly, this pandemic has exposed the irony inherent in these anti-immigration attitudes. Even as many undocumented immigrants are risking their lives to support our communities, they continue to face the threat of deportation, regardless of being deemed as essential workers. On top of this, they have worked without the promise of receiving benefits from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to help them through the pandemic (U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2020).

At the end of the day, every essential worker, even the ones we hear about less often, is important because their work contributes to keeping our communities running and to the fight against COVID-19. Recognition should not be influenced by immigration status, race, ethnicity, cultural background, or socioeconomic status.

Undeniably, many undocumented immigrants risk their lives on the “front line” to serve our country and families, and their work should not go unnoticed. The invisible essential workers also deserve much gratitude, higher wages, and an opportunity to obtain a legal work permit. Together, we can and will get through this global pandemic.

Co-authors include Dr. Mercado’s Mental Health Lab at UTRGV: Jacqueline Martinez, Frances Morales, and Nyla Vela.

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