Ulises García went from being a waiter to working at a laundromat. Yelitza Esteva used to do manicures and now delivers groceries. Maribel Torres swapped cleaning homes for sewing masks.
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated sectors of the economy dominated by immigrant labor: Hair and nail salons, restaurants, hotels, office cleaning services, and in-home childcare. About 20% of the U.S. workers in vulnerable industries facing layoffs are immigrants even though they only make up 17% of the civilian workforce, the Migration Policy Institute said. The economic meltdown has forced many immigrants to branch out to new jobs or adapt skills to meet new demands generated by the virus.
Many of the immigrants with new jobs now say they feel grateful to have a job amid the pandemic, even if it means putting their own health at risk.
"I wonder sometimes if I should quit because I don't feel comfortable working, when the virus is everywhere," said García, who now works at a Brooklyn laundromat. "The problem is that no one knows for how long this will last."
For Esteva, there was no other option than to find work after she lost her $2,100-per-month salary from a Miami hair salon. Her husband lost his job. The couple pays rent, bills and send money to at least seven family members in Venezuela.
"I was terrified," Esteva said. "I was left with nothing."
Now, Esteva and her husband work for grocery delivery service Instacart and make about $150 per day, working more than 12 hours daily.
"I am very, very fearful," Esteva said. "I trust God, who is protecting us."
According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in March, 49% of Hispanics surveyed said they or someone in their household has taken a pay cut or lost a job – or both – because of the COVID-19 outbreak, compared with 29% of white people and 36% of blacks.
A recent analysis from Pew based on Census statistics found that about 8 million Hispanic workers were employed in service-sector positions that are at higher risk of job loss.
Most green-card holders can benefit from unemployment insurance and from the economic stimulus package. Some immigrants on a temporary work permit, like those applying for asylum, can also get unemployment and the new stimulus checks. Immigrants in the country illegally can't access those dollars even if they pay taxes.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, however, announced that his state will give cash to immigrants living in the country illegally who are hurt by the coronavirus, offering $500 apiece to 150,000 adults. Some cities in the country are pushing similar efforts: Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, have both set up bridge funds that are open regardless of immigration status. Austin, Texas, has a fund that will be used in part to help people left out of federal relief.
Maribel Torres, a Mexican immigrant, used to clean apartments in New York, but tenants stopped calling her when the pandemic started. Her husband, a cook, lost his job when the restaurant he worked for closed.
Now, with support from MakerSpace, a collaborative work space full of tools and materials that people can learn to use, and La Colmena, a non-profit that helps day laborers, she is sewing masks from home.
Torres, along with three other immigrant women who do this work with her, will donate some masks and sell others. So far, they have sold about 300 online.
"I feel that we are helping, and we plan to make a little money too," said Torres.
Leymar Navas, a former attorney in Venezuela, was working as a restaurant cashier in Miami before the virus outbreak. But the sushi shop closed its doors in March, almost at the same time that her husband and her two adult sons also lost their jobs.
After a desperate search, she found a part-time job for a disinfecting company that cleans bank ATMs.
"Nobody expected this," Navas said. "But any job is decent as long as you bring food to the table."