Dr. Rusty Pliers, MD

Migrant labor workers take greater risks on the job, yet they rarely reap any financial or medical benefits.

construction worker holding hard hart

Read Time: 4 minutes


I nearly had a 2-inch-long nail go into my foot at work one day — it went through the bottom of my boot and in between my big toe and index toe. Some of my coworkers offered me advice for fixing my injury on-site. They reassured me that they had similar experiences where they pulled the nail out and superglued the wound shut. They were undocumented immigrants who didn’t have insurance and didn’t earn a living wage. For them, it was just part of the job.

I am a first-generation, Mexican American in New York City studying public health and heading to medical school next year, so I take the exploitation of undocumented Latino laborers personally. The abuses go way beyond construction work, are widespread and systematic, and entail low wages, dangerously long hours, lack of health care and other benefits, and little to no political representation.

These dangerous conditions have expanded over the last couple of years because Latino workers are overrepresented in industries that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, according to the Center for American Progress. No one in my household received pandemic relief because they were either undocumented or full-time students. Latinos in the U.S. are more likely to contract COVID-19, over four times more likely to need hospitalization because of COVID-19 than White Americans, and made up a disproportionately larger amount of job losses at the beginning of the pandemic than White Americans, yet we continue to help make this country wealthy.

I am saddened by the U.S.’s neglect of many Latino immigrants and the loss of so many lives because of fear, lack of money, and limited access to health care.

According to the Latino Donor Collaborative, if U.S. Latinos were an independent country, their gross domestic product would rank fifth in the world. This same population also makes up a consumption market larger than countries like Canada and South Korea, demonstrating that the U.S. is at least somewhat dependent on these communities. If Latinos produce more than the U.K., India, and France, why are these communities over twice as likely, according to the Federal Safety Net, to be living in poverty than White Americans? This implies fewer job and education opportunities, less access to federal programs, and less access to health care.

According to Sally C. Moyce and Marc Schenker, many migrant workers take greater risks on the job, do work without adequate training or protective equipment, and do not complain about unsafe working conditions. When my foot was nearly impaled, my coworkers made no mention of reporting the injury, hospitals, paid leave, or suing for being put in an unsafe working environment. This is the result of fearing any level of government intervention and inability to afford health care. We worked throughout the pandemic when work was scarce, the number of workers per job was reduced, and pay was cut due to the employers’ own financial losses.

If the U.S. wants to continue reaping the benefits of Latino labor, the federal government should provide basic health care as the pandemic continues to disproportionately affect Latino communities.

I am saddened by the U.S.’s neglect of many Latino immigrants and the loss of so many lives because of fear, lack of money, and limited access to health care. Yet, I am very fortunate as a U.S. citizen and grateful that, if the nail had gone through my foot, I would not have been destroyed financially by seeking care at a hospital instead of relying on rusty pliers and pats on the back.

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