Being called "essential" doesn’t feed our families, put a roof over our heads, or cover our health care expenses. If Washington lawmakers are serious about supporting essential workers, they’ll fight to meet the urgent needs of our immigrant and undocumented communities.
For the past six weeks, the low-wage workers that keep this country running—the people who harvest our food, cook our food, stock our grocery stores and deliver necessities to our homes—have been in the national spotlight. The appreciation for essential workers isn’t theoretical: polls show that the vast majority of Americans want the next stimulus package to include a bill of rights for all essential workers, things like a $15 minimum wage, safety protections, paid sick and family leave, and healthcare.
But these rights and protections often don’t extend to our immigrant and undocumented communities—and we work in critical and essential roles at a disproportionately high rate. Undocumented workers perform essential work at a higher rate than the U.S. population overall.
Our neighborhoods here in the city of SeaTac are filled with people like us. Immigrants from the Middle East, Asia, East Africa, Central and South America. They drive for Uber, they deliver for Amazon, they clean the bathrooms at the hospitals and hotels, they hold the hands of the very sick at nursing homes.
Many of our neighbors are one hospital visit, one divorce, one layoff away from eviction. Our small businesses—many of which were already struggling after being displaced—are shuttered and will struggle to reopen. Loans are a pipe dream for those of us with language barriers, or who have fallen victim to predatory lenders.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only crisis affecting our neighborhoods. We are all victims of many connected crises, such as wealth inequality, racism, and corporate greed.
Because we are immigrants, our safety nets are threadbare. Because we are dark-skinned and speak with accents, we face many obstacles to find jobs or to get loans. Because our children are born into poverty, our families' chances of breaking the cycle are slim. And because many of us work for billionaires who have proven they’ll do whatever it takes to safeguard their profits, we will continue to suffer long after this pandemic ends.
Still, many of our elected leaders continue to give millions in tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy, forcing the rest of us to tighten our belts. As long as our basic human needs depend on the goodwill of these employers, immigrants will continue to drown. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In King County and here in Washington State, we can and must take bold steps to put the needs of essential workers over the profits of Washington corporations. This work is already being done nationally and in different states across the country. For months, groups like the MLK Working Families Party, People’s Action, Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, 350.org and others have been building support for a national "just recovery" response that is inclusive of all working people, no matter their immigration or contractor status.
Many of these groups are also mobilizing behind an essential bill of rights, which would enshrine in statute health and safety protections, hazard pay, universal paid sick leave and family leave, job security and access to benefits, health insurance and child care.
New York City Council introduced similar legislation that would help New Yorkers where the state and federal government have failed. We need the same protection for King County and all of Washington.
Some elected leaders are already championing the bold, structural changes our families urgently need: King County Councilmembers Girmay Zahilay and Jeanne Kohl-Welles are advocating for a rent and mortgage moratorium. Seattle City Council is calling for similar legislation, and elected officials across the state—including those from Redmond, Spokane, Bellingham and Seattle—are calling on the Governor and the state’s legislative leaders to call a special session in Olympia in support of a rent and mortgage cancellation and accessible health care. City Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Kshama Sawant are pushing for a tax on big business payrolls to pay for new housing, and emergency relief checks to residents starting this summer.
But bold, structural change can only happen if more local elected leaders join the fight. In times like these—moments where the entire country is prepared to make major changes in order to protect ourselves from future crises—Washington elected officials must take urgent action to provide relief for the most vulnerable workers. Our elected lawmakers must fight to ensure the next COVID relief package provides all workers, no matter their immigration or contractor status, with the compensation and protection they deserve as they risk their lives to care for all of us.
If there is ever a time to reimagine who Washington’s economy and democracy work for, it’s now. With the fragility and failures of our infrastructure, healthcare system and democracy laid bare, this is a pivotal moment for all those who believe that a better city, state and country—and a better world—are possible.
Tawfik Maudah is a pizza delivery driver, small business owner, immigrant and board member of the MLK Working Families Party.
Takele Gobena is a SeaTac City Councilmember, union representative and immigrant who lives with his family in SeaTac.