Gotham Gazette

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City Budget Crisis Threatens Lifeline for Day Laborers and Immigrant Workers

nice volunteers groc

NICE staff and volunteers deliver groceries to workers impacted by COVID-19

“The rags were so filthy, and we had no soap and little water to clean them, so we felt like we were spreading the virus in the subway car by our cleaning…We started on Monday, but they did not give us masks ‘til Wednesday…The gloves they gave us were for making sandwiches, not for cleaning! They would break, and there were no more, so we brought our own…I worry: How many people will get sick because these cars were “cleaned” this way?”
-Susanna, a New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) respondent reporting unsafe working conditions and fearing other New Yorkers would get sick in ineffectively-cleaned subways cars. 

Susanna worked cleaning subway cars to keep essential workers and all New Yorkers safe during the near-lockdown and as the city “reopens,” but the contractor was cutting corners and putting profit over the health of workers and the public. With NICE’s support, Susanna protested her sub-prevailing wage pay, and what she saw as unsafe working conditions that ineffectively cleaned subways and posed risks to all New Yorkers. 

Susanna’s voice is one the New York City Council should hear as Council members decide how to distribute discretionary funding. Many immigrant-led/serving nonprofits that have been critical lifelines for immigrant workers are at risk of losing their funding due to the city budget crisis. This would be tragic for the organizations, immigrant workers and families they serve.

Thankfully, the City Council can make these New Yorkers a priority as negotiations proceed leading up to a new budget by July 1.

Research by New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) -- a nonprofit that supports day laborers and other low-wage immigrant workers and their families through its Worker Centers in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx -- shows how these communities are extremely hard hit by the pandemic. Survey data are grim: the pandemic sharply increases NICE families’ risk of poverty and homelessness.

Only 20.5% had worked at all during the pandemic; 90% had not worked in over four weeks. As a result, 41% of respondents reported being at risk of losing their housing, and 32% feared they could be at risk. Those at risk lived with an average of 2.2 children, nearly all U.S. citizens. Research shows homeless children face a “cascade” of preventable harms making it harder to learn and thrive as adults. NICE’s data point to a developing crisis we can still act to prevent.

Moreover, of those surveyed, 36% reported COVID-19 symptoms (loss of taste/smell, cough, difficulty breathing). Actual infection rates could be higher, because infection precedes symptoms. Equally worrisome: 41% reported underlying conditions (eg asthma) that can worsen covid’s morbidity. Finally, 15% reported “acute anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts as a consequence of Covid19.” 

NICE’s strategic thinking is to respond over what the Centers for Disease Control call the “lifecycle” of the pandemic, which will likely include the immediate crisis; phased reopening by work sector, including construction work; possible COVID-19 case upticks, and re-shutdowns; development and broad use of better treatments and a vaccine; and transition out of the pandemic.

Efforts like these will be essential in each pandemic lifecycle stage. First, NICE members work mostly in construction, one of the first large industries in New York City’s phase 1 "reopening." The research NICE has done (and seeks to continue) could offer real-time data on upticks – the canary in the coalmine – for policy-makers. Faster response can save thousands of New Yorkers’ lives. Second, NICE and similarly-situated organizations are directly linked to the most vulnerable New Yorkers who are unlikely to be contacted by or respond to most polling or online surveys on the coronavirus (including the CUNY School of Public Health’s well-designed weekly 1,000-person survey on COVID-19 impacts). Third, immigrants’ deep trust in their organizations makes them essential partners as we move through the pandemic lifecycle. These organizations can help ensure all New Yorkers have fair access to a vaccine, once we have one. But they must survive financially to do this work, which City Council funding can help ensure.  

Finally, including funding in the New York City budget for organizations that support immigrant workers will keep all New Yorkers safe now and in the long-run. Consider Singapore, which nearly quashed the pandemic, but neglected its immigrant workers, causing COVID-19 cases to rebound. Just as Susanna worried about people who could get sick from a badly-cleaned subway car, all New Yorkers should want Susanna to have proper gloves and masks, and want the construction workers, nannies, and deli workers who are part of the fabric of New York life to be as protected as most everyone else. New York is a resilient place, but must also be a just and smart place, where it protects all New Yorkers equally, so we can all live safely and well. 

Manuel Castro is the Executive Director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE). On Twitter @NICE4Workers. Robert C. Smith is a Professor in the Marxe School at Baruch College and the Sociology Department, Graduate Center, CUNY, and co-author of Immigration and Strategic Public Health Communication (2019, Routledge).

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