Immigrant Workers in Industries Discussion

Executive Summary
With the COVID-19 virus spreading rapidly within
the United States, workers in several key industries are at the frontlines of keeping U.S. residents
healthy, safe, and fed.1
This includes not only doctors
and nurses, but also the custodians who are cleaning hospital rooms, checkout clerks at grocery stores
and pharmacies, scientists racing to develop treatments and a vaccine, and the people who grow, harvest, and transport food across the country. Immigrant workers are over-represented in a number of
these occupations that are vital in the fight against
the coronavirus. While the foreign born represented 17 percent of the 156 million civilians working
in 2018, they accounted for larger shares in some
frontline occupations: 29 percent of physicians, 38
percent of home health aides, and 23 percent of retail-store pharmacists, for example.
Immigrant workers are also over-represented in
some of the non-frontline industries that are being
devastated as more people follow social distancing
guidelines and more states and cities issue shelter-in-place orders. Travel restrictions, orders limiting the operation or mandating the shutdown of
restaurants and bars, and the closure of businesses
deemed nonessential have already led to mass layoffs. In just the first week of serious social distancing
measures across the country, some 3.3 million new
unemployment claims were filed—a rate that while
unprecedented in U.S. history is likely only the tip
of the iceberg.2
Immigrant workers are over-represented in many of the hardest-hit industries: hotels
and restaurants, cleaning services for now-shuttered office buildings, and personal services such
as in-home child care and hair and nail salons. The
economic pain brought by this sudden and dramatic
economic contraction will bring hardship to millions
of Americans in the coming weeks and months. For
many immigrant workers, the hardship will be exacerbated by limited access to safety-net systems and
to federal relief, both for those who are legally present and those who are unauthorized.
The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates 6
million foreign-born workers are employed in vital,
frontline industries; another 6 million work in some
of the industries hardest hit by the fight against
The first section of this fact sheet reviews the roles
immigrant workers serve in industries at the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. The second section
discusses the jobs immigrant workers fill within industries that are laying off large numbers of workers.
in Industries Vital to
Pandemic Response
Immigrant workers (meaning those who were born
outside the United States, regardless of whether
they have since become naturalized citizens, are
legal permanent residents, lack legal status, or are
temporary workers) make up about 17 percent of
civilians working.4
But they are over-represented in
some of the industries that are vital to the coronavirus response—comprising 22 percent of scientific
researchers, some of whom may be working on
treatments and a vaccine, and 34 percent of those
providing vital transportation within urban centers.
And they work at high rates within some of the occupations within the health-care field. Overall, the
Migration Policy Institute (MPI) finds that 6 million
foreign-born workers make up 19 percent of the
U.S. workers in such frontline industries. The section
below details the occupations filled by immigrant
workers within some of these broad industries.
A. Health Care
Within health-care and social service industries, immigrant workers make up disproportionate shares
of those in certain occupations. For example, the foreign born comprise 29 percent of physicians, 22 percent of nursing assistants, 29 percent of housekeepers, and 24 percent of janitors and building cleaners
in the health-care industry.5
They are also 38 percent
of home health aides and 25 percent of personal
care aides, who care for aging and disabled patients
in their homes. Such workers must place their own
health at risk to travel to and visit their clients amid
the coronavirus outbreak.
Workers in Industries Vital to the COVID-19 Response, 2018
All Workers Foreign-Born Workers
Number Share
Health Care and Social Services 18,721,000 3,099,000 17%
Essential Retail and Wholesale: Groceries, pharmacies, and gas
stations 5,196,000 924,000 18%
Manufacturing: Food, medicine, soap/cleaning agents 2,703,000 695,000 26%
Transportation: Truck, rail, and water 2,228,000 385,000 17%
Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting 1,957,000 536,000 27%
Transportation: Bus, metro, and taxi drivers 1,110,000 380,000 34%
Postal Service 690,000 93,000 13%
Scientific Research and Development 671,000 146,000 22%
Total Workers in Industries Vital to the COVID-19 Response 33,277,000 6,259,000 19%
Total Civilian Workforce 155,716,000 27,124,000 17%
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulations of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey (ACS), accessed
March 19, 2020, through Steven Ruggles, Sarah Flood, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, Erin Meyer, Jose Pacas, and Matthew Sobek,
“IPUMS USA: Version 10.0 [dataset].”
Ten Largest Occupations in the Health-Care and Social Services Industries, 2018
All Workers Foreign-Born Workers
Number Share
Registered Nurses 2,985,000 472,000 16%
Nursing Assistants 1,363,000 301,000 22%
Personal Care Aides 1,138,000 289,000 25%
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses 815,000 124,000 15%
Physicians 808,000 233,000 29%
Medical and Health Services Managers 648,000 89,000 14%
Medical Assistants 497,000 78,000 16%
Home Health Aides 476,000 182,000 38%
Social Workers, not otherwise classified 425,000 41,000 10%
Receptionists and Information Clerks 410,000 45,000 11%
All Workers in Health-Care and Social Services 18,721,000 3,099,000 17%
Note: Tables 2-5 and 7-9 list the number of workers by occupation within a given industry. Many occupations span several industries, so
the number listed for an occupation within one industry does not represent the full number of workers in that occupation across the
U.S. workforce.
Source: MPI tabulation of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 ACS, accessed March 19, 2020 through IPUMS.
B. Essential Retail and
Wholesale: Grocery Stores,
Pharmacies, and Food
Immigrants represent large shares of the workers
who are keeping essential businesses such as grocery stores and pharmacies open amid the crisis.
These retail workers have faced long, stressful shifts
as Americans stock up on food and medicine, quickly emptying store shelves. And retail workers are
often in close contact with large numbers of customers, placing them at risk of contracting COVID-19
themselves. Within essential retail businesses, immigrant workers form particularly high shares of pharmacists (23 percent), butchers and meat processors
(23 percent), and drivers (21 percent). Foreign-born
workers are also key in the food wholesale process,
comprising 68 percent of those who grade and sort
agricultural products and 42 percent of food packers
and packagers.
Immigrants represent large shares of
the workers who are keeping essential
businesses such as grocery stores and
pharmacies open amid the crisis.With most office workers across the country now
working from home, local mandates to close “nonessential” workplaces, and apartment buildings scaling
back services for public health reasons, the number
of workers required to staff and clean buildings has
been greatly reduced. Immigrants account for 38
percent of all building services workers, including 59
percent of maids and housekeepers, 41 percent of
janitors, and 21 percent of maintenance and repair

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