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Immigrant workers pressing firms as pandemic recovery gives them leverage.

Food delivery riders take part in a street protest ride organized by the group "Los Deliveristas Unidos," demanding better working conditions, pay and protections in Times Square in New York City on April 21, 2021.
Food delivery riders take part in a street protest ride organized by the group "Los Deliveristas Unidos," demanding better working conditions, pay and protections in Times Square in New York City on April 21, 2021.

This fall, the estimated 65,000 delivery bikers in New York City won major job improvements when the city council passed several new worker protection bills.

Some of what they won was so basic as to be "ridiculous," says delivery biker Gustavo Ajche.

"It makes me laugh to talk about it: bathroom access," he says, during an interview in Spanish. Ajche, originally from Guatemala, was one of the organizers behind Los Deliveristas Unidos, an umbrella group created to unite independent contractors, mostly immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and South Asia, under one name.

Immigrant workers faced extra challenges over the last year and a half. Foreign-born workers, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as naturalized U.S. citizens, those with green cards, visa-holders, and undocumented immigrants, were more likely to be unemployed during the height of the pandemic, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.

Undocumented workers were under additional pressure, because they do not qualify for federal pandemic safety net programs, such as the stimulus payments or boosted unemployment. Many were forced to work, or depend on community support, to survive.

But those hardships have spurred some to take action across the country.

The pandemic was a catalyst for changing the app-based work of food deliveries, according to Hildalyn Colón Hernández, director of Policy and Strategic Partnerships at the Workers' Justice Project, an advocacy group for low-wage, immigrant workers in New York City. The streets were empty, and bike delivery workers, were more visible, she says. Their ranks also swelled when restaurants shut down, according to Ajche, and many undocumented waiters and cooks turned to deliveries.

After holding two large marches in October 2020 and April 2021, and grabbing media attention, Los Deliveristas Unidos succeeded in getting first-of-their-kind laws passed in NYC. In addition to the right to use the bathrooms at restaurants where they pick up orders, delivery workers also won pay minimums and transparency about tip amounts. Delivery companies like DoorDash and UberEATS must also provide delivery workers with the insulated food bags they once had to buy themselves.

"This package is a big success ... but there are a lot of things to fix," Ajche says. For example, traffic safety and rampant theft of workers' expensive electric bikes are still a concern, he says. But "it's a start."

Workers from other booming pandemic businesses have also turned their challenges into fuel for organizing. Lily Vasquez, originally from El Salvador, has worked packing meal kits at a HelloFresh warehouse in the Bay Area since 2016.

During the pandemic, she says, they continued to work as before – but with more fear.

"We were going to work and we were wondering all the time if the person next to us would be sick," says Vasquez. Two people she knows who caught COVID-19 at work died. Vasquez herself came down with COVID-19 in December. She attempted to shield her family members, but she ended up passing the virus to her then-12-year-old son.

Throughout this time, she says, workers kept expecting their employer to take more care with them during a global health crisis. "We thought, 'Oh they're going to take action, they're going to start doing tests,' because we have to still go to work," she says. Instead, "We don't feel like we've been treated like human beings."

A HelloFresh spokesperson said the company has made "significant safety investments and improvements to support our frontline employees at our distribution centers," including deep cleanings, updates to the air filtration system, and health screenings.

This summer, Vasquez' warehouse in Richmond, Calif., and another HelloFresh warehouse in Aurora, Colo., went public with their efforts to unionize, represented by Unite Here. Many of the employees are Latino, Pacific Islander, or African immigrants, according to a union staffer. In addition to concerns about COVID, workers say jobsite injuries and low pay drove the campaign.

"We need safety, respect, better salaries," Vasquez says.

Though the current economic climate has created opportunities for some workers to demand better pay or conditions, those opportunities are not spread around evenly. Whether you're recovering economically, or just treading water, depends a lot on where you live and what industry you work in, according to a new report by the Migration Policy Institute. Immigrant job loss was highest in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast regions. Immigrants are also ​"overconcentrated" in some industries that struggled during the pandemic, such as hospitality and construction, per the report.

Some immigrants working in those industries are fighting simply not to be worse off than they were pre-pandemic.

Beatriz Torres worked as a lounge attendant for the Marriott Copley Place in Boston's Back Bay for 23 years. Last year, she says, she was shocked to be let go, along with more than 200 other hotel employees.

"You invest your whole life in a company, and suddenly, they leave you in the street in the middle of a pandemic," she says, during a Spanish interview.

Torres, who is a naturalized citizen, found work at a Starbucks at the airport, but it pays about $8 less an hour than her old job did. It's not enough, but at 70-years-old, she is at a disadvantage. Older workers of all backgrounds were hit harder by the pandemic recession.

So, Torres and some other workers, who are not unionized, have been protesting outside the hotel, distributing fliers and trying to get the word out about their cause.

"Right now, we're focused on a boycott because we want them to give us our jobs back," she says. So far, they have not succeeded. Marriott Copley Place management did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On a smaller scale, some workers are advocating simply for themselves.

A woman named Reyes, who asked that NPR only use her surname because she is undocumented, works as a prep cook in Philadelphia. Knowing the restaurant industry is short-staffed, she says she recently negotiated a small raise.

After watching another employee quit, she says, "I went to the boss and said to them if you don't pay me more, I'm going to leave."

As a result, she says, her boss offered to boost her pay to $17/hour, a dollar more than her previous wage.

Reyes says she likes what she does, and does not actually want to find different work. But the current work climate, and high turnover, was an opening she could not pass up.

"I took advantage of the moment because if not ... there's not another time, other moments like that," she says.

Copyright 2021 WHYY