No coronavirus relief for the undocumented workers behind Philly’s building boom

For construction workers who aren’t U.S. citizens, there are fewer options for keeping food on the table during the region’s coronavirus shutdown.
(Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

For construction workers who aren’t U.S. citizens, there are fewer options for keeping food on the table during the region’s coronavirus shutdown. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

Oscar Lopez moved to Philadelphia 13 years ago and, like so many others in his adopted city, he’s feeling the pain of a frozen economy right now. But unlike many Philadelphians, he isn’t able to access much of the public assistance meant to salve the wound.

Lopez runs a small residential remodeling and maintenance business, where he employs three men, fellow immigrants from Guatemala. Until the coronavirus pandemic swept across the region and Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statewide stop-work order, the small team did steady business.

“We had jobs we had started but we couldn’t return to the houses to finish them,” said Lopez. “If we don’t finish, they don’t pay us.”

Neither Lopez or any of his workers have the legally required paperwork to live in the United States. That means they cannot access the direct payments or bulked-up unemployment benefits available through the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus.

In the absence of any safety net, Lopez is doing the best he can for his crew. He called his employees’ landlords individually and negotiated with them, convincing them to postpone rent payments. But even that bit of help only pushes the debt farther down the road.

“The rent that’s not paid now will have to be paid,” said Lopez.

The struggles of Lopez and his small company highlight the dangers facing undocumented workers who have contributed mightily to Philly’s construction and development boom,  especially in the residential neighborhoods where crews like his have rehabbed thousands of single-family homes over the past decade.

Nationally, about 14% of all “construction and extraction” workers are immigrants with no work authorization, according to the Pew Research Center.

But those workers are more concentrated in particular corners of the construction economy. While the city’s powerful building trades unions represent workers on big public buildings, mixed-use and commercial projects, smaller crews dominated by immigrants tend to work on the more modest infill projects that define the city’s changing neighborhoods.

Javier Garcia Hernandez (center), owner of construction cooperative MexCon, holds a morning meeting with his employees on February 4, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

“A significant portion of the smaller job construction work in the region, and in the country, is done by people who are in the country illegally,” said Domenic Vitiello, Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

Emilio Garcia Castro coordinates health and safety trainings for the nonprofit PHILAPOSH, and works with immigrant laborers who often face hazards on job sites. These workers, typically non-unionized, have little ability to push back against unscrupulous employers, said Castro. If members of the crew don’t have documentation, they tend to be wary of government authorities who could otherwise help with unsafe working conditions.

Castro said the coronavirus shutdown hasn’t stopped all of the workers he knows from reporting to job sites. Many who are still on the job tend to be doing indoor work to evade the authorities, he said.

“Unless it’s a framing crew that is strictly outside, they won’t stop,” said Castro, who used to be a member of the Carpenters Union.

A crew he recently saw tearing shingles off a roof in North Philadelphia was working outside exposing workers to the deadly virus as well as other hazards, he said.

“They had no safety protection, no fall protection whatsoever, and this was just a few days ago, when the jobs were supposed to have stopped,” said Castro.

Alfredo Aguilar is originally from the La Ceiba area of Honduras, and now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He understands the pull of work even when the city is supposed to be shut down.

“We all want to work,” said Aguilar, who is employed through Mexcon, an immigrant-run general contracting company. “We have to pay rent, if we don’t, we’ll get thrown out in the street with our families, our kids,” he said.

Mexcon workers are still waiting to be paid for jobs they started, but are legally barred from finishing, the same bind Lopez is caught in.

Aguilar worries that without access to the emergency assistance programs created to help those out of work due to the pandemic, his children will go without, even though they are U.S. citizens.

Most of America’s social safety net is inaccessible to those who do not have citizenship. This puts mixed-status families like Aguilar’s in a precarious situation. Social Security numbers are required to access benefits from unemployment insurance and many of the health care benefits available through the Affordable Care Act.

Under President Donald Trump, the federal government has stepped up its efforts to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing the safety net. Such exclusionary measures were included in the $2.2 trillion pandemic stimulus.

Now the regulations are forcing immigrant laborers to continue working in the face of dangers from the coronavirus because they have no other means of supporting themselves.

“They’re hurting themselves and they’re hurting us because if they get sick, let’s say we all have to go to the same market,” said Castro. “Now I come in contact with one of them, maybe one of them sneezes, I get sick. But I’m not blaming them. If they don’t work, they are SOL.”

Philadelphia authorities say the city government is offering help where it can. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, in collaboration with Philabundance and other private partners, is distributing free food across the city and allowing anyone in need to pick up boxes without showing documentation or ID.

The city also established the PHL COVID-19 Fund, which is providing funds to nonprofits that serve immigrant populations and are struggling with their normal revenue streams.

“We are raising money for the COVID fund, which is supplying resources to organizations that traditionally deal with and serve that community,” said Mayor Kenney. “There’s nothing the city can do from an unemployment compensation standpoint, but we will continue to try to serve them through these nonprofits and whatever other services the city can offer.”

The people interviewed in this story said they were unaware of city assistance programs.

For Lopez and his three employees, each of the rare days of work presents a choice. His wife has lupus, and when he comes and goes he takes extreme precautions to disinfect himself and everything he brings in.

“I would love to stay home 100% [of the time] for my wife,” he said. “But really, if I do [stay home] 100%, what’s going to happen to my guys?”

WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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