From a NC DREAMER: Want to Lower Coronavirus Infections? Offer Unemployment Benefits to Undocumented People Too

A new study draws a direct correlation between healthcare inequalities, particularly for Latino families, and the refusal to expand Medicaid in states like North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock)

By Viridiana Martínez

July 6, 2020

Coronavirus doesn’t care about citizenship status. And denying unemployment to undocumented people only incentivizes people to work while sick. 

It is Monday evening and Laura receives a text message from her daughter Sarah.

Sarah is letting her know that she does not have to cook because she will be bringing dinner home from the restaurant she manages. Due to the pandemic, Sarah has been pulling doubles at the restaurant and wants to use this time to play catch up with her mom.  

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Earlier that day, Juan woke up with a terrible headache. But Juan had to get up to get ready for work. He’s a cook at the restaurant Sarah manages. Trying not to think much of it, he took some Ibuprofen and proceeded to get ready. He has a whole family to sustain: his wife and two children. 

Juan is an excellent worker; he has never called out and he is always on time. So when COVID hit, he was not one of the workers laid off. Juan was guaranteed his position at the restaurant due to his work ethic which he learned from his father. Juan was 17 years old when he migrated to the United States with his father. 

He is undocumented which is why he takes the utmost pride in his position at the restaurant, making sure he doesn’t upset the managers and always goes above and beyond of what is expected of him. Even when that means putting his own health on the back burner. 

Not to mention, Juan is ineligible for unemployment benefits. If Juan were to test positive for COVID, he would have to miss work. 

RELATED: NC Was Slow to Hire Bilingual Tracers While COVID-19 Exploded Among Latinos

The problem with this is that there is no safety net for him nor his family to rely on. Like all undocumented people, Juan has no access to unemployment insurance, food stamps, Section 8 housing or any other government-funded programs. 

For Juan, quarantine means homelessness and starvation for his family.

That same Monday morning, Miguel, another one of the cooks at the restaurant, woke up with a terrible cough. Miguel called Sarah to tell her about his cough. Even if he tested positive for COVID, Miguel took comfort in the fact that he is a legal permanent resident, or green card holder, making him eligible to apply for unemployment benefits.

 Fast forward to Thursday. Miguel has been in isolation inside his home since Tuesday when he tested positive for coronavirus. He will have to be out of work for at least two weeks. Miguel has filled out his unemployment claim and knows that this will process and his safety net will kick in. Miguel can quarantine in peace and this will help him recover soon. 

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It’s Thursday afternoon and Laura has been sick since Tuesday. She is experiencing fever, chills, and a terrible cough. She just got off the phone with a pharmacy associate. Laura tested positive for coronavirus. Sarah is devastated, her mother is at high risk of suffering severe illness due to her age and health condition. 

It’s Friday and Juan is back in the kitchen. His symptoms have gotten better so he did not call out. Ibuprofen helped the headaches, and the fever he experienced happened overnight. But the headaches are not entirely gone and now he also has muscle aches. His wife tells Juan to get tested but he has no idea where to go. He heard from one of his coworkers that testing sites ask for a government-issued ID but Juan doesn’t have one due to his immigration status. 

These are all hypotheticals, but rest assured, scenarios like this are playing out in North Carolina today. Coronavirus has gutted the state’s economy.

And for the state’s Latino community, which has been hit especially hard by the virus (about 46% of the state’s nearly 73,000 confirmed cases have been reported among Latino residents), the pain has been immense even if these stories don’t make it above the fold in the newspaper each day. 

In North Carolina, according to the Migration Policy Institute, between 2012 and 2016, there were 42,000 undocumented workers in the food services industry.  This means there are at least 42,000 restaurant workers in North Carolina right now who are undocumented and could be in Juan’s position. And contrary to popular thinking,  never forget that undocumented people also contribute billions of dollars each year in taxes, whether it’s via tax returns or payroll taxes.

If North Carolina’s elected officials are truly seeking to flatten the curve and bring the number of COVID-19 cases down, there can be no exceptions to who can access unemployment benefits. 

If quarantine is mandatory for workers then unemployment benefits must also be mandatory for all because COVID isn’t checking immigration status. 

It is cruel and illogical for the government to demand workers quarantine without replacing their income. 

When unemployment benefits are extended to the undocumented population, this will inevitably lead to a significant decrease in cases. Other states should follow suit. 

At the end of the day no wall can stop COVID.


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