On Tuesday, May 13, Senate Republicans called a hearing entitled “Examining Liability During the COVID-19 Pandemic” to explore possible ways of shielding business owners from liability during the crisis. Workers – many of whom are immigrants and people of color – are risking their lives everyday in industries deemed essential. What’s worse is that many immigrants working in these unsafe environments do not qualify for relief programs like unemployment benefits or the recent federal stimulus packages, and a disproportionately high number lack health care.
As outbreaks in these work environments surge, advocates are calling on Congress to set universal standards to ensure safety on the front lines, provide universal testing, and make paid sick leave mandatory. Despite repeated requests for these accommodations, Senators like Republicans Lindsey Graham (SC) and John Cornyn (TX) used the hearing to push their agenda of opening up the economy by any means necessary, even if that means putting the lives of essential immigrant workers at risk.
One of the witnesses on the panel was Anthony “Marc” Perrone from the United Food and Commercial Workers, who used his platform during the hearing to focus on the fact that Congress has a duty to enact universal safety measures. Many immigrants work in industries like meat packing and farming, where they are forced to work in close quarters without safety equipment like masks or gloves. According to Perrone, “If these workers are essential, as every elected official has said up to the president of the United States, then this nation must provide them with protections.”
Another witness at the hearing included Rebecca Dixon from the National Employment Law Project. She focused on the fact that many communities who have been historically undervalued have disproportionately high rates of illness and death related to the pandemic, in part because they are more likely to be in front line industries considered essential. In her statement she explained that “in America, opportunity and risk have always been segregated and stratified by race and gender,” and went on to say that “this country has done a poor job of providing equal rights, benefits, and protections for workers of color and immigrants.”
Rebecca Dixon: "For workers in particular, right now they don't really have any enforceable recourse if their employer is not following the guidelines… That's going to make it really risky when they're making the choice between wages and their health." @RebeccaDNELP @NelpNews pic.twitter.com/6C6rmm5apw
— America's Voice (@AmericasVoice) May 12, 2020
While some Senators on the committee including Democrats Amy Klobuchar (MN), Dick Durbin (IL), and Kamala Harris (CA) used the hearing as an opportunity to shed light on some of these dangerous work conditions and provide suggestions of how to set universal safety standards, the fact remains that Congress has done very little to protect the essential workers America is relying on. So long as those in power continue to prioritize profits over the lives of their constituents, vulnerable populations like immigrant communities who have been historically undervalued will continue to face some of the harshest consequences of the pandemic.