The Disproportionate Impact Of The Pandemic On Migrant Essential Workers In California

Farm workers. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It’s been over two years since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the United States. And it’s time we listen to the workers who’ve been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in California: migrant essential workers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, essential workers have been simultaneously celebrated and disrespected across the United States. Some community members and allies have shown support for essential workers through kitchen utensil salutes, statements of solidarity and features in news articles and documentaries. Essential workers have also, however, been burned out. They have been treated as disposable, they have been yelled at, they have even been physically assaulted.

In California, some news media have focused on the pandemic experiences of a specific category of essential workers — migrant essential workers. These workers, people born outside the U.S. and employed in an essential workplace, comprise a third of the state’s essential labor force. To date, excellent news stories about these community members have highlighted the experiences of working-poor or working-class agricultural workers, often from Mexican or Central American backgrounds. 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 the UC Santa Barbara Center for Publicly Engaged Scholarship have sought to answer these questions by facilitating in-depth conversations with 40 migrant essential workers across California. The people we talked to hailed from 16 different countries across five continents. We’ve talked to Black, Asian, Latinx, white and multiracial people; we’ve talked to people living in urban, suburban and rural communities; and we’ve talked to working-poor, working-class and middle-class people. We’ve 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’ve learned from them:

First, migrant essential workers work in a variety of industries. Although many understand “migrant essential worker” to primarily refer to those who work in California’s agriculture industry, the California State Government lists 13 different sectors and hundreds of jobs that could be considered essential workplaces for migrants. The people we talked to came from 35 different occupations, including everything from informational technologists at financial software companies to refugee resettlement interpreters, nannies, manufacturing warehouse workers and chemists. We learned that although all migrant essential workers are on a “frontline,” this frontline is multi-faceted: sometimes it’s physical, sometimes it’s digital. There are several important aid programs in California that are specifically tailored to assist those in historically hazardous, neglected occupations, such as agriculture and health care workers. But it’s also important for policies to support the remaining plethora of professions that other migrant essential workers occupy.

Second, migrant essential workers have wide-ranging experiences at their workplaces. We heard many stories about workplace hazards and stress. For example, a grocery store worker told us she was frightened when having to ask customers to put on a mask in order to avoid the possible spread of COVID-19. Another, a mother of two young children, shared being overworked and tired — clocking in over 100 hours a week as a hospital receptionist at times. On the other hand, the pandemic provided significant flexibility to others. As one financial aid advisor put it, “It was a privilege that I literally got to stay in my bedroom … and I didn’t have to physically interact with anyone.” This mobility was not something that all essential workers could access. Those who worked from home, however, weren’t without work-related stress. They often experienced what we call a “pandemic health paradox” of intense stress and well-being. One teacher told us that the pandemic years were some of his “hardest as an educator.” But, they were also the ones in which he felt most supported by his employers.

Third, migrant essential workers of color experience health inequities. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed health care inequities and longstanding racial disparities for migrant essential workers, many, if not most, who are also people of color. People of color are at an increased risk for serious illness if they contract COVID-19 due to higher rates of underlying health conditions such as asthma, hypertension and diabetes compared to white people. And hospitalization rates due to COVID-19 disproportionately affect Black people. What we learned from our interviewees is that many migrant essential workers were uninsured and lacked the usual source of quality care, which was an impediment to accessing COVID-19 treatment and testing services. A grocery store shopper who lives in a rural area told us that “it’s always hard to find good health care … I currently still have to drive an hour and a half to take my kids to their pediatrician.” Many migrant essential workers of color told us they just wish medical services were “more active, better and faster.”

Finally, migrant essential workers are mentally drained. As one participant put it, “part of being in good health is being in the mental state where you don’t have to worry about getting hurt.” Their role as an essential worker did not always provide the space for this to be taken into consideration. Another added, “I wish people knew that even though we became a priority, things felt harder than ever.” And they’re not alone in this sentiment. A recent study from the American Psychological Association found that essential workers across multiple industries are burnt out. One of our participants said, “because they consider you as an essential worker, then you’re needed. And because you’re needed, you’re expected to show up.” This can take a toll on mental health; this participant urged their political representatives to “really look into the community they’re serving, and not politicize our lives because a lot of politics really don’t have anything to do with what we are going through.”

To be sure, U.S.-born essential workers work in a variety of industries. They also have wide-ranging work experiences within each of these industries. A lot of them might feel mentally drained and burnt out from the inequalities of capitalism. And depending on their positionality, they could have also experienced health inequities during the pandemic. However, migrant workers often face legal precarity and/or long-distance family separation in addition to these factors, which can serve as additional stressors in their professional and personal lives. Many migrant essential workers are being worked to the bone while facing the disadvantages of being a migrant in the U.S., all the while stereotyped by some as not contributing to the American workforce.

As a community, we must come together to listen and learn about the diversity of migrant essential workers’ experiences during the pandemic. It is our duty to be patient and understanding towards the challenges they encounter, and we ought to support meaningful organizing efforts, such as the Worker’s Justice Project, and policy changes, such as the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, that could ensure added security for migrant essential workers in California and around the country.

Support for this research was received by 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 sociology doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studies hope and well-being in urban, suburban and rural America.

Prachi Bhagavatha ‘22 is a biopsychology alumna at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is a Cal-IHEA Health Equity Scholar and an aspiring physician.

Karina Cruz Casas ‘21 is a sociology alumna of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Daniela Delgadillo ‘21 is a sociology alumna of the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is an aspiring organizational psychologist.

Meghana Renavikar ‘20 is a biopsychology alumna of the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is an aspiring medical student and physician.

MarĂ­a Romo ‘23 is an undergraduate student 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.