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'Shelter-In-Place' Order Leaves Immigrant Workers Vulnerable

Jeff Chiu
AP Photo
A "social distancing" sign is posted in San Francisco, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Millions in the San Francisco Bay Area are under a historic "shelter-in-place" order, which could have a profound impact on low-wage immigrant workers.

This story was updated with additional reporting on March 18, 2020 at 8:21pm.

The Bay Area’s historic shelter-in-place order is intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. But it could have a profound impact on low-wage workers, who live month-to-month. Low-wage immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable, and some of the programs available to them are struggling to stay up and running.

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Hermelinda Sánchez Dulcero has been cleaning houses in Oakland for over a decade. She’s worked with some of her clients for years. Last week, she lost one of them.

“My employer grew up here, but her parents and whole family are from China,” Sánchez says. “They’re being careful, so... I couldn’t go to work. They told me I could come back in a month and a half or so.”

That was before Alameda County issued its shelter-in-place order. Now, Sánchez isn’t working at all, and she’s worried about paying her bills. She’s also concerned about her safety when she does go back to work. As a domestic worker, her work requires her to come in contact with other people’s germs.

“We don’t know what we can really do,” Sánchez says. “Wash your hands, wear gloves and a mask — nothing guarantees that we won’t get sick.”

Low-income immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis. California’s immigrant communities are disproportionately represented in service, cleaning, maintenance and caregiving industries, which require many employees to interact with other people.

“Those people are at risk of losing employment or are losing employment,” says Ken Jacobs, the chair of UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, who studies low-wage work and labor standards.

Thousands of Bay Area residents were laid off last week, and county officials expect unemployment to spike under the shelter-in-place order. The state is encouraging workers to apply for unemployment, but because workers like Sánchez are independent contractors, they aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance.

If workers like Sánchez manage to keep working, Jacobs adds, “that both puts them more at risk of getting sick — and if they work while sick, more at risk to transmit to others.”

Dwindling Resources

There are local nonprofits and county programs set up to help workers like Sánchez, but many of them are getting hit hard by COVID-19 too.

“Even before the coronavirus, we were one of the very few services able to serve undocumented communities,” says Gabby Galicia, Executive Director of the Street Level Health Project.

Galicia’s organization serves low-income immigrant workers in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. It provides free health screenings and breakfasts to community members, including many that are homeless or uninsured. Last week, Galicia said they were worried their crowded offices might help spread the virus. “On our busiest day, in the middle of the day, you could probably potentially have 100 people here plus staff,” she says. “It's definitely very cozy.”

In the middle of last week, the Street Level Health Project decided to limit their services. When Alameda County issued its shelter-in-place order on Monday, they gave away 35 bags of emergency groceries, then closed their offices altogether. Galicia says she and her staff are figuring out how to continue their outreach work remotely. Their interpreters are planning to call indigenous community members, to ensure they’re receiving vital information in their native languages.

Galicia says some immigrant workers are afraid to seek healthcare anywhere else. Some community members are uninsured. Others are afraid to use Medicaid because of President Trump’s public charge rule, which threatens to deny green cards to certain immigrants who use certain public services.

Then, there’s the threat of ongoing ICE raids. On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted early morning raids in Los Angeles.

“If [community members] start seeing the news that there's ICE raids, they won’t go receive that health care that they need, or go food shopping,” Galicia says. “That is a big reality.”

On Wednesday, ICE officials postponed most of the agency's planned arrests due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Galicia notes that the agency's detention facilities could also be dangerous for public health. “We already see a lot of people in the detention centers that on a yearly basis get influenza,” she says, “and we've even seen kids die there in the detention centers. The concern really is just a massive outbreak of coronavirus.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing ICE to release a group of migrants in a Washington State detention center, whose pre-existing conditions would put them at risk in an outbreak.

‘We’ll Be Alright’

In California, state and county officials are piloting a flurry of social programs that could help workers like Hermelinda Sánchez Dulcero. San Francisco, San Jose, and Alameda County have suspended all residential evictions for people who are directly impacted by COVID-19, including workers who’ve been laid off because of the virus and workers who are quarantined. A number of Bay Area school districts are offering free meals to students during school closures. San Francisco is also offering emergency childcare to families who need to keep working while their children are out of school. 

In the meantime, programs like the Street Level Health Project are continuing to operate as best they can. Gabby Galicia says that she’s talked to community members about the crisis. Many low-wage immigrant workers have already faced war, poverty, fear, and persecution, she says, and she’s confident this is something the community can get through.

“A lot of [community members] just kept saying, ‘we'll be alright,’” she says. “They’re just surviving. And they’ve been able to survive.”

Teresa Cotsirilos was a reporter at KALW covering labor rights and public health in the Bay Area’s immigrant communities.