Update: On July 30, 2020, Governor Janet Mills announced that $1 million in funding will be directed to efforts to reduce the disparate impact of COVID-19 on Maine’s immigrants and minority communities. As immigrant leaders had requested (discussed below), funds will be dispersed to community organizations that are already working in the affected communities and have their trust, in order to do more outreach and education and testing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and to provide wrap-around services to immigrants and their families who must self-isolate and quarantine.
The Washington Post recently reported on the disturbing reality of COVID-19’s disparate impact on Maine’s African American and Immigrant populations.
Immigrants make up a large percentage of Maine’s Black population, and many recent immigrants work in essential jobs such as health and elder-care, in seafood and chicken processing and other food supply chain jobs, and in factories, including those making personal protective equipment (PPE).
MeBIC partner American Roots is one of the latter. Responding to COVID-19, it pivoted from making vests and hoodies to making PPE for hospital staff. Its workforce is overwhelmingly immigrant, and as reported in the article, when given the choice to collect Pandemic Unemployment Compensation or to continue to work to produce PPE, all of American Roots’ employees voted to keep working. The company has now expanded five-fold, and despite spacing work stations six feet apart, placing barriers between work stations, and providing all employees with PPE, recently 11 of the company’s staff tested positive for COVID-19.
Even with the pandemic induced spike in Maine’s unemployment rate, when American Roots was hiring about 80 more employees to meet the production demand for PPE, the vast majority of those applying for their livable wage, good benefits, union shop jobs were asylum seekers and other recent immigrants.
The American Roots experience is just one example of immigrants working in essential jobs that can’t be done remotely. Given their often congregate work settings, it is devastating that COVID-19 has hit immigrant communities hard, but not unsurprising. As the article notes, and local media have also reported, while only 2% of Maine’s population are Black, they represent over 23% of COVID-19 cases.
The discrepancy highlights economic and health-care inequities that pre-existed the pandemic, but that COVID-19 has laid bare. Leaders from Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and immigrant communities have called on the Mills administration to take aggressive steps to address the disparities. MeBIC supports their calls to be partners at the table with those planning the responses, and for CARES Act funding to go to community organizations that work directly with and have the trust of affected communities. and to recognize that racism is a public health threat.
If you missed the Washington Post article, you can read it here.