What Makes a Worker “Essential” or “Expendable” Is Not Their Jobs

By Yehudit Mam

April 21, 2020

Black and Latinos disproportionately represent the front lines of workers who are at high risk, ‘essential’ applies to their jobs, but rarely to themselves.

If you go for a walk in New York City during the lockdown you see white people jogging, biking, grocery shopping, and walking dogs, while brown and black people work in grocery stores, delivery trucks, restaurants, and pharmacies. In the supermarket on my corner, the cashiers, all Black and Latinx, did not have masks until a few days ago and plexiglass barriers at the cash registers were installed only very recently. 

The virus is twice as deadly for Black and Latinx than for white residents of New York City, the world’s epicenter of the pandemic with over 10,000 deaths. Latinxs are more vulnerable because they live in cramped quarters, without the luxury of social distancing. Only 16% of Latinos can work from home. 

Hundreds of workers in the abusive meatpacking industry are succumbing to COVID-!9. These workers tend to be mostly low income and Latinx, many of them undocumented. They have no job benefits and if they complain they can be threatened with visits by ICE.

RELATED: Latinos Make Up 71% of COVID-19 Cases Despite Being Only 33% of Population in this County

The workers that pick our fresh food are demanding more protective measures and more humane treatment from their employers, like paid sick leave, a benefit that people should not need to beg for. Agricultural workers are falling ill and employers have been slow to protect them, if at all. In some instances, workers are asked to buy their own masks and gloves. To add to the cruelty, the Trump administration is planning to lower the farmworkers’ salaries to help the agricultural industry. What is this, the 19th century? 

Even before the pandemic, this country has displayed complete cognitive dissonance, if not abject hypocrisy about the undocumented workers who are the backbone of our economy, so much so that they are now deemed essential. However, as Gerardo Reyes Chávez from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida says, “they are essential but they are treated as if they are expendable”. 

American business hires undocumented workers with no benefits and low wages. At the time of Hurricane Katrina, a joke circulated in New Orleans that FEMA actually stood for “Find Every Mexican Available”. When things get tough, guest workers” are brought in to clean up the damage. But who gets persecuted? Who gets demonized as rapists and criminals? Who gets penalized? The workers who silently toil under conditions that Americans would never tolerate. 

Xenophobes complain that undocumented workers break the law when they enter the country and they should pay the price by being deported, often in appalling circumstances. They conveniently ignore that American businesses thrive on the exploitation of these people. Racists and nationalists like Stephen Miller and President Trump use the undocumented to stoke hatred and resentment among the unemployed whites who are the victims, not of the immigrants, but of the businesses that have gutted the American industry to manufacture and process goods more cheaply. 

The coronavirus pandemic is brutally revealing how much we rely on these invisible workers and how exploited and forgotten they are, how little recourse they have.

RELATED: VOICES OF THE WORKERS: The Untold Story of Farmers in Florida

As Cristina Jiménez, executive director of United We Dream, an immigration advocacy group says, “The folks who are working essential jobs right now are the same people who don’t have health care. The people who are cooking the food we are eating don’t have enough to eat themselves.” 

They are mistreated even as they keep this country humming. Many of those who have died are being buried in mass graves, alone and unclaimed. Others die at home, afraid to go to the hospital for fear of deportation. They are risking their lives in the front lines, stacking our supermarket shelves, picking and preparing our food, delivering our pizza, and we are an ungrateful nation.  

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ro Khanna have introduced a Bill of Rights for Essential Workers but it does not specify whether it includes undocumented workers. According to the New York Times, “the benefits given to workers so far have excluded any households that pay taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, as undocumented workers do — leaving an estimated 12 million people ineligible.”  

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is offering $500 per person to the undocumented workers in his state that are left out of the Congress approved stimulus package. Needless to say, Republicans hit the roof, willfully oblivious that while California grows 40% of the nation’s produce, 70% of its farmworkers are undocumented.  

While every nation on Earth has a right to control who enters its borders, the United States’ current immigration policy — which seems to affect predominantly poor immigrants of color — has long been untenable but is now critical. The government cannot continue looking the other way as businesses hire undocumented workers and immigrants are then punished, with increasing cruelty, for breaking the law. 

This crisis makes it painfully clear that comprehensive immigration reform, which is a political hot potato, needs to be a national priority. The pandemic has also revealed the Dickensian inequality at the root of our society. The American people need to understand that we can no longer turn a blind eye on hardworking people that are treated like indentured servants so we can get our essential goods and services in comfort and on time.

RELATED: Less Than 16% Of Latinos Can Actually Work From Home



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