Bauer: Oregon must step up to protect undocumented workers where Congress has failed
For their service during the pandemic, undocumented workers deserve our gratitude. But what they've received instead is mostly grief.
Most undocumented workers perform work deemed essential by the federal government — the same federal government that has excluded undocumented workers from economic relief given to other workers. In the absence of federal support, and in light of the hardship the pandemic has inflicted on this community, it is incumbent on the Oregon legislature to do more to protect undocumented workers.
Three of every four undocumented workers fill essential roles in Oregon's critical infrastructure, as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. For comparison, less than half of Oregon workers overall meet the definition of essential. In a very real sense undocumented workers make daily life possible for Oregonians.
A case in point is agricultural work, which is about as essential as it gets. Agricultural workers harvest and process the food that sustains us. It might surprise you to know that about one-third of Oregon's agricultural workforce is undocumented.
Despite their essential role, many farmworkers have faced economic hardship over the past year. A survey of Oregon farmworkers last year found that most had lost weeks or months of work due to their workplace shutting down, being exposed to the virus and needing to quarantine, caring for someone who got sick, or attending to children during school closures. For most of these workers, the loss of income means economic hardship — difficulty paying for the basics such as food, housing and utilities.
Even as they've struggled to pay for food, undocumented workers have risked their health to keep food flowing to our tables. Agricultural worksites in Oregon have been hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks. About one-fifth of farmworkers surveyed reported someone in their household had contracted the virus, with 9% of them reporting the infection had ended in death. This indicates a much higher mortality rate than Oregon's overall mortality rate of 1%.
Undocumented workers, of course, support not just agriculture, but a range of industries. And some industries employing large numbers of undocumented workers have bled jobs. For instance, the leisure and hospitality industry in Oregon employs one in five undocumented workers. Oregon's hotels, motels, and restaurants shed a quarter of their workforce in 2020. The leisure and hospitality industry is not expected to recover the jobs lost for another six years.
When workers lose their jobs, it can mean catastrophe for families in the absence of a safety net. How do you pay for food, for rent, or for the internet service that allows the children to connect to school?
Most workers who have lost a job or income during the pandemic have been eligible for federal relief — but not undocumented workers. Congress nearly doubled the amount of unemployment insurance benefits going to unemployed workers, while extending this protection to categories of workers previously excluded, such as gig workers. These workers were also eligible for three separate "economic impact payments." For Oregon workers receiving unemployment insurance continuously during the first year of the pandemic, those benefits plus the impact payments average about $38,600. Meanwhile, not a penny of these federal benefits have gone to undocumented workers.
In the summer of 2020, the Oregon Legislature responded to the lack of federal relief for undocumented workers by allocating resources to a new Oregon Worker Relief Fund. As of May, the Oregon Worker Relief Fund provided $48 million in direct cash support to nearly 28,000 Oregonians ineligible for federal relief. Grant amounts averaged $1,700. Although the fund has been a lifesaver for many families, it lacks the resources to provide the kind of ongoing wage-replacement that unemployment insurance offers.
Given that many industries supported by undocumented workers will not recover for some time, and given the indifference of Congress to many of the workers it recognizes as essential, it is up to the Oregon legislature to do what is right. Lawmakers should provide additional resources through the Oregon Worker Relief Fund to protect Oregon's undocumented workers.
Janet Bauer is a senior policy analyst with the Oregon Center for Public Policy. Learn more at ocpp.org.
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