It has been more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States. And it’s time to listen to the workers who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in California: essential migrant workers.
Since the start of the pandemic, essential workers have been both celebrated and despised across the United States. Some community members and allies have shown their support for essential workers through cooking utensils salutestatements of solidarity and features in the news articles and documentaries. However, essential workers have also been burned. They were treated as disposablethey were shoutthey were even physically assaulted.
In California, some news media have focused on the pandemic experiences of a specific category of essential workers – immigrants essential workers. These workers, people born outside the United States and employed in an essential workplace, include a third essential state workforce. To date, excellent reporting on these community members has highlighted the experiences of the working poor or working class. agricultural workers, often of Mexican or Central American origin. This raises additional questions: What are the experiences of migrant essential workers outside of agriculture? What about people from other demographic backgrounds?
Over the past eleven months, members of our team at UC Santa Barbara Center for Public Engagement Scholarship sought to answer these questions by facilitating in-depth conversations with 40 essential migrant workers across California. The people we spoke to came from 16 different countries on five continents. We spoke to black, Asian, Latina, white, and multiracial people; we spoke to people living in urban, suburban and rural communities; and we spoke to the working poor, the working class and the middle class. We heard about their work, their health, their aspirations, and what they want people to know about their experiences during the pandemic. Here are four things we learned from them:
First, essential migrant workers work in a variety of industries. Although many understand that “essential migrant worker” primarily refers to those who work in California’s agricultural industry, the California State Government lists 13 different sectors and hundreds of jobs that could be considered essential workplaces for migrants. The people we spoke to came from 35 different professions, ranging from information technologists in financial software companies to refugee resettlement interpreters, nannies, manufacturing warehouse workers and chemists. We have learned that while all migrant essential workers are on the “frontline,” that frontline is multifaceted: sometimes physical, sometimes digital. There are several important assistance programs in California that are specifically designed to help those who work in historically dangerous and neglected jobs, such as Agriculture and Health care workers. But it is also important that policies support the plethora of remaining professions occupied by other essential migrant workers.
Many essential migrant workers work to the bone while dealing with the downsides of being a migrant in the United States, while being stereotyped by some as not contributing to the American workforce.
Second, migrant essential workers have varied experiences in the workplace. We have heard many stories about the dangers and stress at work. For example, a grocery store employee told us that she was afraid of having to ask customers to put on a mask in order to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19. Another, a mother of two young children, shared being overworked and tired – sometimes logging over 100 hours a week as a hospital receptionist. On the other hand, the pandemic has offered significant flexibility to others. As one financial aid counselor put it, “It was a privilege to literally be able to stay in my room…and I didn’t have to physically interact with anyone. This mobility was not something that all essential workers could to access. Those working from home, however, were not without work-related stress. They have often experienced what we call a “pandemic health paradox” of intense stress and well-being. One teacher told us that the pandemic years were among his “most challenging as an educator.” But these are also the ones in which he feels the most support from his employers.
Third, migrant essential workers of color experience health inequities. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed longstanding health care inequities and racial disparities for essential migrant workers, many, if not most, who are also people of color. People of color are at one increased risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19 due to higher rates of underlying health conditions such as asthma, hypertension and diabetes compared to whites. And hospitalization rates due to COVID-19 disproportionately affect black people. What we learned from our interviewees was that many migrant essential workers were uninsured and lacked the usual source of quality care, which was a barrier to accessing treatment services. and screening for COVID-19. A grocery shopper who lives in a rural area told us that “it is always difficult to find good health care… I currently have to drive another hour and a half to take my children to their pediatrician”. Many migrant essential workers of color have told us they just wish medical services were “busier, better, and faster.”
Finally, migrant essential workers are mentally exhausted. As one participant put it, “part of being healthy is being in a mental state where you don’t have to worry about getting hurt.“Their role as an essential worker has not always provided the space for this to be considered. Another added:I would like people to know that even though we have become a priority, things have become more difficult than ever. And they are not alone in this feeling. A recent study from the American Psychological Association found that essential workers in several industries are being burned out. One of our participants said: “because they consider you an essential worker, then you are needed. And because we need you, we expect you to show up. It can be detrimental to mental health; this participant urged his political representatives to “really look at the community they serve and not politicize our lives, because a lot of the politics really have nothing to do with what we are going through”.
Certainly, essential workers born in the United States work in a variety of industries. They also have extensive work experience in each of these industries. Many of them might feel mentally drained and drained by the inequalities of capitalism. And depending on their position, they might also have experienced health inequities during the pandemic. However, migrant workers often face legal insecurity and/or long-distance family separation on top of these factors, which can constitute additional stressors in their professional and personal lives. Many essential migrant workers work to the bone while dealing with the downsides of being a migrant in the United States, while being stereotyped by some as not contributing to the American workforce.
As a community, we need to come together to listen and learn about the diverse experiences of migrant essential workers during the pandemic. It is our duty to be patient and understanding in the face of the challenges they face, and we must support meaningful organizing efforts, such as the Workers’ Justice Projectand policy changes, such as the Citizenship Act for Essential Workersthat could provide increased safety for essential migrant workers in California and across the country.
Support for this research was received from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (Grant no. 1650114), the California State University Chancellor’s Doctoral Incentive Program Mini-Grant, and the UC Santa Barbara Migration Initiative Research Grant.
Trevor Auldridge Reveles ’24 is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studies hope and well-being in urban, suburban, and rural America.
Prachi Bhagavatha ’22 is an alumnus of biopsychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is a Cal-IHEA Health Equity Fellow and Physician Aspirant.
Karina Cruz Casas ’21 is a former sociology student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Daniela Delgadillo ’21 is a former sociology student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is an aspiring organizational psychologist.
Meghana Renavikar ’20 is an alumnus of biopsychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is an aspiring medical student and doctor.
María Romo ’23 is an undergraduate studying sociology and political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is an incoming intern at the University of California, Washington Center in Washington, D.C.