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Immigrant Legal Status among Essential Frontline Workers in the U.S. during the COVID-19 Pandemic Era

José Pacas, University of Minnesota
Ryan Allen, University of Minnesota
Zoe Martens, University of Minnesota

In this article we make three primary contributions to the emerging literature on essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. First, we incorporate a more nuanced estimate of which workers are frontline workers by virtue of their inability to work remotely rather than at a work site. Second, we assess how essential frontline worker status is distributed across nativity and among immigrant workers by legal status. Third, by identifying the legal status characteristics of immigrant workers the government considers to be essential frontline workers, we quantify the importance of unauthorized workers for the continued functioning of the economy in the U.S. Our analysis reveals that foreign-born workers are disproportionately represented among essential frontline workers relative to native-born workers, and that unauthorized immigrants are dramatically overrepresented among essential frontline workers relative to native born workers and immigrant workers with other legal statuses. Relative to other essential frontline workers, unauthorized essential frontline workers have characteristics (i.e. lower levels of human capital, English fluency and educational attainment, higher rates of poverty, lower rates of access to health insurance) that may make mitigating the risk associated with greater potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus in the workplace more difficult.

Keywords: COVID-19, Human capital and labour markets, International migration, Migrant populations

See paper.

  Presented in Session 32. Impact of COVID-19 on Human Capital and the Labour Force