Immigrants make up nearly a third of ‘essential’ workforce


MIAMI – Essential workers were recently feted in South Florida with a thunderous flyover by the Navy’s Blue Angels.

But who makes up the state’s essential workforce? A new report out of the Florida Policy Institute (FPI) strives to provide some answers.

Among the key findings: nearly a third of all the workers on the front lines of Florida’s coronavirus pandemic are immigrants — a group that includes those both with and without legal status. Nationwide, that figure stands at just 17%.

Women and African Americans are also overrepresented in the state’s essential workforce, the study found.

Where they work

As the report notes, not only are immigrants overrepresented overall — they make up 28% of all essential workers, compared to just 21% of the state’s total population — but they also account for at least 20% of each of the six industries classified as essential.

Those include the healthcare industry, the trucking/warehouse/postal sector, public transit, childcare and social services, the grocery/drugstore industry and building cleaning services.

Of the six essential industries listed, building cleaning services has the highest proportion of foreign-born workers: 44%. On its heels are trucking/warehouse/postal and health care, where immigrants represent 29% and 27% of industry employees, respectively.

“I was noticing a lot of praise and appreciation for essential workers but without any context of who they are and what their needs might be,” said Alexis Davis, FPI policy analyst and report author.

No surprise

Based on a recent analysis of Census data by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), Davis’ report also highlights that women represent 63% of Florida’s essential workers. Black Floridians are also over-represented, making up 22% of all essential workers in the state but just 16% of the total workforce.

Davis said she was not surprised by the findings.

“It generally makes sense to us that roles that are higher-risk and with lower wages are going to be dominated by immigrants and other vulnerable groups like women and people of color,” she said.

The reward for braving risk of infection is small. More than one in four essential workers earns less than $25,520 annually, according to the report.

Excluded from CARES

Immigrants’ out-sized contributions to the essential industries’ workforce stand in contrast, advocates say, with their less than-full inclusion in coronavirus relief policies.

At issue is the fact that undocumented immigrants — despite being heavily represented nationwide in sectors ranging from healthcare to farming, which was recently deemed essential by the federal government — were excluded from the CARES Act, the $2 trillion relief package passed in March.

“It’s really interesting how now we’ve gained so much appreciation for essential workers who are feeding us and keeping us healthy, and then we see that in the CARES Act, you aren’t eligible to receive any of the cash benefits if you don’t have a social security number,” said Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC). “We find that concerning.”

Stage lagging

Although some state and local governments have put forward measures to shore up the gap in financial relief available to undocumented families — California and New York City, for instance, have put together funds equaling $125 million and $20 million respectively to support unauthorized immigrants — no such step has been taken in Florida.

“In comparison to the rest of the nation Florida is definitely lagging in resources and in support for the communities that are really standing up valiantly to fight this invisible monster during this time,” said Rodriguez.


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