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Immigrants push for better working conditions that were made worse by the pandemic

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

As Hurricane Ida hit New York City in September, a video of an immigrant courier struggling to drag his bike through hip-deep water went viral. The weather might have been extreme, but unsafe conditions are far too common, leading some immigrants to fight for their rights across the country. Laura Benshoff from member station WHYY reports.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Delivery bikers, many immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, had a big win in New York City this fall, when local officials passed a slate of bills workers had been fighting for since last year. Organizer Gustavo Ajche says some of what they won was very basic.

GUSTAVO AJCHE: (Through interpreter) It makes me laugh to talk about it - bathroom access. In a big city like New York, that we had to pass a law to have access to a bathroom - it's stupid and ridiculous.

BENSHOFF: They also won pay transparency and no longer have to buy their own insulated food delivery bags. Many undocumented immigrants in New York turned to bike deliveries during the pandemic due to lack of other work, says Ajche. And because they can't access federal safety net programs, he says they chose the name Los Deliveristas Unidos, or the United Delivery Workers, in order to go toe-to-toe with delivery giants like Uber Eats and Grubhub.

AJCHE: (Through interpreter) Because there were people of various nationalities, and it's beautiful because we all came together and all identify with the reality of being a worker.

BENSHOFF: But the economic recovery, like the pandemic itself, isn't spread around evenly. Beatriz Torres worked for the Marriott Copley Place in Boston's Back Bay for 23 years. During the pandemic, she was shocked to be let go, along with more than 200 other hotel employees.

BEATRIZ TORRES: (Through interpreter) You invest your whole life in a company, and suddenly they leave you in the street in the middle of a pandemic.

BENSHOFF: Torres found work at a Starbucks at the airport, but it pays about $8 less per hour than her Marriott job. It's not enough, but at 70 years old, she's at a disadvantage. Older workers of all backgrounds were hit harder by the pandemic recession, and though Torres is a U.S. citizen now, foreign-born workers, regardless of legal status, were also more likely to lose a job during the peak of the pandemic, according to U.S. census data. So Torres and some other workers have been protesting outside the hotel.

TORRES: (Through interpreter) We distribute flyers. We also have been doing interviews. Right now, we're focused on a boycott because we want them to give us our jobs back.

BENSHOFF: Marriott Copley Place has not responded to multiple requests for comment. Working in an industry that declined during the pandemic, like tourism or hospitality, puts immigrants such as Torres at a disadvantage. On the flip side, industries that have boomed, such as meal kit delivery services, come with their own risks. Lily Vasquez has worked packing meal kits at a HelloFresh warehouse in the Bay Area since 2016. She says last year things were bad.

LILY VASQUEZ: We were at work wondering all the time if the person next to us would be sick.

BENSHOFF: A HelloFresh spokesperson says they made significant safety investments and improvements to support frontline employees at distribution centers. But Vasquez, who was born in El Salvador, says she did get COVID at work and brought it home to her then-12-year-old son. Vasquez says she and her colleagues expected their employer to take more care with them during a global health crisis.

VASQUEZ: We don't feel like we've been treated like human beings, and this is something that the people that is getting their meals at their doors - they don't know. They don't know what's going on.

BENSHOFF: So her warehouse and another one in Colorado recently went public with their efforts to unionize. For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND SCIENTISTS' "MAY 6") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.