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The Pandemic has Laid Bare the Vulnerabilities Gig, Migrant, and Contract Workers Face

From PPE, to unsafe working conditions, unstable work, and numerous inequalities, essential workers have been underprotected and overexposed

Authors: Common Future

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed work as we knew it. Many lost their jobs, while others shifted from working from their offices to their living rooms. For others, figuring out how to live in a world with COVID-19 has meant choosing between their health and economic wellbeing.

“The scramble reveals a class system in which a mark of relative status is the power to withdraw If you have wealth or a salary from an institution that values you, and enough space at home, you might be able to pull off the essentially absurd trick of isolating yourself,” Rakiba Kibria, Common Future Director of Advancement, explained in early 2020, “But for the 50% of the country that has no savings and lives paycheck to paycheck, or in small apartments with little food storage, or has to hustle every day to find work, this is simply impossible. People will be out every day, on the subways, at the gas stations, choosing between epidemiological prudence and economic survival, because they have no choice but to make that choice.”

For workers whose livelihoods were precarious already, COVID-19 amplified the myriad issues with those work arrangements. App-based gig workers, migrant workers, and contractors saw their hours careen between no work and too much work, while the exploitative conditions they already weathered became more severe and widespread.

“The pandemic has laid bare the vulnerabilities these workers face,” says Laura Padin, who directs the Work Structures program at the National Employment Law Project. “When their work dried up, they couldn’t get unemployment insurance, and they couldn’t get workers’ compensation or sick time when they got COVID in the workplace. The safety net many workers relied on just evaporated for them.”

Because precarious work is overwhelmingly shouldered by BIPOC — for example, 30% of gig workers are Latino, 20% are Black, and 19% are Asian, with white workers making up only 12% — this impact landed heaviest on the communities already hit hardest by the pandemic. This New York Times data visualization made it startlingly clear that people on the front lines of this virus are working jobs that are most often occupied by people of color, immigrants, women, and members of other marginalized communities. BIPOC precarious workers are also more likely to experience harassment, assault, and to overall feel unsafe on the job, including specific fears of COVID-19 exposure.

Laura goes further to explain that changes for precarious workers fell into two categories: reduced work, or increased expectation. “Janitorial workers, for example, were still going in, but the conditions were much more stressful with more in-depth cleaning, and they were not informed when someone at the office building had tested positive.” Because this precarious work is mostly contract-based, employers had no legal obligation to provide safe working conditions in the same way required for full-time employees. This also showed up in the gig economy: delivery apps like Instacart refused to provide PPE and other safety measures, and in some cases cut workers’ base pay.

Migrant workers similarly had few choices, but to continue working through degraded conditions. Some saw their work disappear almost overnight with border closures, exacerbating existing debts for cross-border movement. But for those already working in the US, their work never stopped — even when it became hazardous.

“Agricultural work does not stand still,” says Irma Ayers, who works with the Farmworkers Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a union representing about 9,000 agricultural workers across Ohio, North Carolina and the Midwest. “If the crops are not harvested, then there’s no food to provide the suppliers. Farmworkers never stopped working.” In early 20202, Common Future’s Director of Special Projects, Caitlin Morelli, explained in depth how COVID-19 pushed our food systems to the brink. Even small-scale farmers, known for higher wages, better working conditions, echoed this concern.

Like many migrant workers, those in agriculture are more likely to live in crowded conditions that increase COVID transmission. Similarly, in the first wave of the pandemic, FLOC saw many cases of workers who caught waves of COVID in the cramped, barracks-like housing that farm operators provide to workers. According to Irma, “Younger workers came through it pretty well, but many older ones had lingering health effects and had to return home to Mexico. Others died because they just couldn’t recover.”

The financial toll on the community was significant. As cases spread, workers who got sick lost income—with no fallback, and couldn’t send money back to their families. Undocumented workers were also shut out of most state-sponsored relief programs, slowing, or making impossible, a financial recovery from lost work.

Facing workforce shortages as more and more workers fell ill, employers turned to H2-A visas to bring in more. This visa allows for quick, temporary hiring, of agricultural workers from outside the U.S., and has long been used in a cyclical industry. But because the government didn’t also update safety standards for H2-A visas—that could have required employers to provide PPE and create space for social distancing—these workers were subjected to dangerous conditions, and in some cases died.

Irma doesn’t know whether the FLOC members who died due to COVID were on H2-As, but she says that these visas have long been predatory. They are supposed to be free, but fixers in migrants’ countries of origin will charge fees or demand kickbacks to apply, because migrants don’t know better. Workers will also often have to pay off the bus drivers that transport them to farms, once they’ve been hired. “The abuses we’ve seen during the pandemic have always existed,” she says.

Although migrant workers stayed on the job continuously, gig workers have weathered whiplash. At first the pandemic plummeted demand, but now, there is increased demand for their work, as people have continued ordering more goods online and working from home. Precarious workers of all types have not seen the benefits of the post-COVID tightened labor market.

While it’s too early to know if these changes will be permanent, the gig workforce, particularly among immigrants, has undoubtedly grown as workers lost jobs in construction, restaurants, and other industries impacted by COVID.

Some of these workers may not have the opportunity to shift back to more stable jobs— all the more likely if companies follow the same hiring patterns they did after the 2008 financial crash. “We saw a huge uptick in temporary staffing workers, which is normal, because companies are cautious during a recession,” says Laura. “But the problem is that we never saw a decrease as things improved — it seemed like companies ended up just relying on that model permanently.”

What is certain to be permanent, is the workplace changes precarious workers have fought for and won over the course of the pandemic. Los Deliveristas Unidos, an organization of delivery workers in New York City, pushed the city council there to pass a resolution guaranteeing them minimum pay, protected tips and access to restaurant bathrooms. And although rideshare companies defeated a bill in California to correctly classify their drivers as employees, the opposition was fierce, and organizing around the bill has continued and spread far beyond the state.

FLOC has spent the pandemic supporting its members as their needs shifted along with conditions. Early March is a peak time for migrants crossing into the U.S. “We contacted our members in Mexico and were able to send them pamphlets to educate them on what they were coming into,” says Irma. During early-pandemic PPE shortages, they solicited donations from supporters nationwide for the masks, gloves and hand sanitizer that employers had failed to offer. We heard similar stories from our grantees: Center for Rural Affairs, Commonwealth Kitchen, Cooperacion Santa Ana, Cooperation Jackson, Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance, PUSH Buffalo, and the Thai Community Development Center. We ultimately deployed 10% of our operating budget ($250k) in the form of rapid response grants for COVID-19, in support of food and farming communities, Native-owned businesses, entrepreneurs, artists and creatives, immigrants, undocumented people, and more.

In highlighting all these inequalities, the pandemic has made one more change with the potential for lasting effects: it defied employers’ longstanding narrative that the instability of precarious work is actually flexibility appreciated by workers. “There has been much more skepticism about gig work, and the quality of work it provides, because there were so many stories about just how dangerous and insecure these jobs are,” says Laura, who described pre-pandemic attitudes toward gig work as being much more friendly to the pro-instability corporate message.

“People now seem to understand how essential the work is, but how little these workers are paid and how few protections they have. That’s an important message, and it really came through during the pandemic.”

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