Since the beginning of March, thousands of Washington state residents have found themselves underemployed, unemployed and otherwise without a clear idea of how they’ll pay rent this month. Many of them were told that their best bet was to apply for unemployment through the state. Unfortunately, due to backlogs and unprecedented pressure on the system, many of them may not see a dime for a month or more.
While it might not feel like it, those who have been able to file for unemployment benefits are the lucky ones. They might actually see some assistance. Plenty of others, though — undocumented immigrants, homeless folks — have even fewer resources to rely on in an already-uncertain economy.
Workers who are undocumented or underdocumented are likely to be harmed by economic uncertainty; a report from the Economic Policy Institute found that Black and Latinx workers are less likely to be able to work remotely. Further, undocumented workers have fewer avenues of recourse against labor violations like tip theft, sexual harassment or unfair scheduling practices. They often don’t qualify for state and local protections, which require a person to file taxes or submit paperwork like a W-2.
On a national level, this is an even greater concern. Under-the-table and undocumented workers, who do still pay sales tax, often pay income tax and are contributing members of our society, are at risk of losing out on a proposed benefit that’s been working its way through Congress. A campaign director for the National Day Labor Organizing Network told CNN last month that advocates were working to ensure that undocumented workers are included in the stimulus money that lawmakers in D.C. are negotiating. It seems unlikely under a president who doesn’t believe that undocumented workers should have health care at all.
A surprising number of workers are, in fact, working off the books; trillions of unreported dollars are estimated to exchange hands in the United States each year. And though most people picture migrant farmworkers when they hear the phrase “undocumented worker,” the truth is plenty of American-born citizens don’t have the necessary paperwork to be considered “documented” either.
The informal economy — which might include under-the-table work, sex work or other forms of off-the-books employment — offers opportunities for those who face barriers to work. And while this can be functional for many (it provides an immediate revenue stream and doesn’t require someone to have ID, an address or a phone number), it can spell trouble when that work disappears or, in the case of COVID-19, “hunkers down.”
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. She has written for Crosscut, Bust Magazine, the Atlantic, the Nation and the Democracy Journal.
Read more in the Apr. 1-7, 2020 issue.