Opinion: Virus’ effect on Ga. economy hurting Latino workers

Long lines form outside the Atlanta Immigration Court in 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Long lines form outside the Atlanta Immigration Court in 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Over the past few decades, Georgia has relied on the skills of Latino workers to keep its economy humming.

In various professional fields and across many industries — construction, poultry processing, agriculture and manufacturing — the Latino workforce has been critical in making Georgia an economic powerhouse. Hispanics’ strong work ethic and high workforce participation rates have contributed to Georgia’s standing as the number-one state for business.

Now, as businesses large and small hurt in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, Latino families are also on the front lines of the collapsing economy. And while millions of Americans are getting relief, many immigrants who have called Georgia home for a generation are missing out. The COVID-19-infused economic crisis threatens to upend years of economic progress and cripple the very workforce that has helped Georgia thrive.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the $2-trillion CARES Act leave many established Latino immigrants out in the cold. Many hard-working Latino Georgians who have been paying federal, state and local taxes for years didn’t receive the much-touted $1,200 stimulus checks because they do not have Social Security numbers. They are also ineligible for the inclusive unemployment benefits even as they lose their livelihood.

We are talking about Latino breadwinners who have called Georgia home for decades, the parents of children who are U.S. citizens and go to school with our own kids, the heads of households who worship with us on Sunday. We are talking about self-employed skilled laborers and small business owners who live in our midst. Many of them take care of the community’s needs in good times and bad. They are fellow Georgians.

Latinos are an important component of Georgia’s essential economy, a cluster of critical low-wage, low-skill jobs that make the economy hum. But these jobs typically don’t offer sick pay or paid time off. Some of the early and hardest-hit casualties of the economic crisis — restaurants and hotels — depend heavily on Hispanic workers. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2019, 27% of employees in restaurants and food services are Hispanic.

As Latino workers lose their jobs or have their hours cut back, they are not able to pay their rent in full, or their utility bills. Latinos are overwhelmingly renters, and they live in market-rate apartments, which are not getting relief from the moratorium on evictions President Trump announced for those who live in public housing. While other states have enacted moratoriums on evictions, Georgia has failed to do so. If these workers are evicted from their apartments, the economic and social fallout will be felt not just by them, but also by many in our communities: landlords, children, neighbors, business owners.

Financial assistance for rent has emerged as the most pressing need in the Latino community over the past eight weeks, along with food insecurity and help paying bills. We see this every day, and other organizations serving the community are seeing it too. The situation is dire, and could reach critical levels if the economy worsens. Many Latino families are living close to the edge and don’t have a safety net.

As the coronavirus epidemic continues to spread in Georgia, the new hot spot is Hall County in northeast Georgia, where Latinos are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Access to testing and affordable treatment across the state and among a broader sector of the population is becoming increasingly important. However, Latinos lag their peers in health care coverage — Georgia as a state has the third-highest uninsured rate in the nation — making Latinos more vulnerable to negative health outcomes. If there is one thing we have learned from this pandemic, it is that we are all interconnected in many ways. We are one Georgia, and it's in our collective best interest to ensure that all Latinos, regardless of immigration status, get access to the health care they need. As the saying goes, we are all in this together.

But with recent changes to the public charge rule, many Latinos are afraid to seek Medicaid. The new rule, which went into effect in February, has had a chilling effect on the use of public benefits, even as it doesn’t impact large numbers of Latinos. Those immigrants who will be applying for a green card through a family petition are the ones subject to the public charge test. Although USCIS has announced that testing and treatment for the COVID-19 virus will not negatively affect those who use it, the damage has already been done.

As we brace through these difficult times, it is important that we not forget the needs of our fellow Latinos and other vulnerable populations. Latino families contribute to Georgia in myriad ways and make our state stronger and more competitive. We need these Georgians to continue playing their critical role as we reopen and restore our economy.

Aníbal Torres is executive director of the Latin American Association.