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Rutgers experts discuss disproportionate impact of pandemic on people of color

Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Center for Women and Work at the School of Management and Labor Relations, said many essential workers are people of color and immigrants, putting them at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).  – Photo by Rutgers SLMR / Twitter

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color in many ways, including a higher risk of illness as well as lack of access to healthcare and financial aid, said Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Center for Women and Work at the School of Management and Labor Relations.

While many people have been affected by the pandemic and the subsequent economic issues, Lancaster said communities of color, especially women and immigrants, have been impacted in a more profound way.

“Women, immigrants and workers of color were especially hard hit with job and income loss because they tend to be overrepresented in low-wage jobs within industries that were impacted the most such as hospitality, retail and childcare,” she said.  

Lancaster said housecleaners are a good example as this field of work is largely dominated by women, with many workers also being undocumented. Since many people did not want workers in their homes due to concerns about COVID-19, these communities were put in difficult economic positions, she said.

Andrea Hetling, associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, explained the relationship between employment and safety in communities of color. 

“From an employment standpoint, the industries that are traditionally dependent on female and immigrant workers tend to be those at the frontline — including food and health care,” she said. “Thus, women and immigrants face additional difficulties in terms of safety.”

Lancaster said that approximately 70 percent of home health aides in New Jersey are Black or Latinx women and are some of the lowest-paid workers in the state.

“Home health aides are both an essential lifeline for thousands of senior(s) and people with disabilities, but during the pandemic, they are also struggling to keep themselves and their families safe from virus exposure,” she said. 

Many immigrants and people of color have worked essential jobs during the pandemic, which increases the risk of contracting COVID-19 or potentially spreading the virus to their families, Lancaster said. 

“We do see higher numbers of illness and deaths in these communities and that has been well documented,” she said. 

Lancaster also said that working conditions in industries such as logistics and warehousing were poor prior to the pandemic and continue to be of concern among organizations representing low-wage workers. 

Childcare can be a big challenge for communities of color during the pandemic as well, Hetling said. 

“With many schools fully remote, kids are home and dependent on good internet for learning,” she said. “Balancing work and family needs is difficult, particularly for families already at the low end of the income distribution.”

Lancaster discussed the financial difficulties that immigrants have faced and continue to face throughout the pandemic. 

“We have come to rely on an immigrant workforce to fulfill many aspects of our economy but many of those workers who we have come to rely on, lack access to a safety net during times like these,” she said. “Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable as they have not been part of the federal (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) CARES Act that provided supplemental unemployment (benefits).”

Hetling said that even immigrants with citizenship were not eligible for stimulus checks if one adult member from their household was undocumented. She said this issue is just one example that immigrants, specifically non-citizen and mixed-status families, are faced with additional hardships.

“What’s often lost on many, is the fact that many of these workers are paying into benefits and programs that they are not able to access,” Lancaster said. “They contribute to our social safety net, (but) often are unable to leverage it when they are most in need.”

Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) signed an executive order on Oct. 28 that will put in place mandatory health and safety standards to protect all workers, according to WNBC.

Lancaster said the executive order was largely driven by advocacy groups representing immigrant workers. 

“During the pandemic, we can see the critical intersection between worker health and safety and public health and safety,” she said. 


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