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The Disproportionately Large Drop in Employment for Immigrant Workers During the Pandemic Varied by State, Based on Lockdown Approach & Other Variables
Press Release
Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Disproportionately Large Drop in Employment for Immigrant Workers During the Pandemic Varied by State, Based on Lockdown Approach & Other Variables

WASHINGTON — Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the steepest drop in U.S. employment since the Great Depression, immigrants had higher employment and lower unemployment rates than their U.S.-born counterparts. These trends shifted, albeit in different ways at the state level, with immigrants—especially women—experiencing higher rates of unemployment than U.S.-born workers.
A new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) issue brief, Immigrant and Other U.S. Workers a Year into the Pandemic: A Focus on Top Immigrant States, examines unemployment trends from the last quarter of 2019 to the first one of 2021, focusing on the ten states with the largest immigrant populations: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, Georgia and Virginia.

At the peak of the economic recession in the second quarter of 2020, immigrants experienced steeper drops in their employment level than U.S.-born workers, both at the national level and in nearly all top immigrant destination states. In the 10 states with the largest immigrant populations, foreign-born workers saw the biggest employment losses early in the public health crisis in Massachusetts. And five of the 10 states experiencing the greatest job loss among all workers are also states with the largest immigrant populations: California, Florida, New York, Illinois and Massachusetts. The differing state employment trends found by authors Julia Gelatt, Jeanne Batalova and Christopher Levesque have been shaped by a range of factors, including:

  • Timing and length of state lockdowns. In states with earlier and longer stay-at-home orders, immigrant workers appear to have been particularly affected by the recession. For example, while immigrant employment rates dropped by 4 percentage points in Georgia, where the stay-at-home order lasted less than 30 days, they fell by 22 percentage points in Massachusetts and 15 percentage points in New York, where the pandemic hit earlier and lockdowns lasted approximately two months.
  • Varied definitions of “essential workers.” The degree to which workers were considered essential varied state to state. In Texas, the entire construction industry was designated as essential in March 2020. As such, immigrant construction workers in in Texas, who make up 18 percent of foreign-born workers in the state, had an unemployment rate of 11 percent at the peak of the economic recession, compared to 32 percent in New York. Even as health care workers of all origins were in major demand, Washington, Georgia, Massachusetts and Virginia saw particularly elevated unemployment rates for immigrant workers in health care in the spring of 2020.
  • The pandemic’s varying impact on different industries. Workers in leisure and hospitality experienced the highest unemployment during the public health crisis. Before the pandemic, this industry employed approximately 11 percent of immigrant workers across the top ten immigrant destination states. Among immigrants working in this sector, unemployment peaked at 64 percent in Massachusetts, followed by 53 percent in New Jersey.

“In the face of the pandemic, state governments faced a stark choice: whether to restrict economic activity to slow the spread of infections and, in doing so, inflict economic pain on their businesses and residents, or to keep the economy open, despite the risks to the health of workers and consumers,” the authors write.

“As the pandemic abates, public health restrictions ease and the U.S. economy recovers, the number of job openings is rising and unemployment is falling — for immigrant and U.S.-born workers alike. Still, it remains to be seen how much the nature of work has shifted during the pandemic, due to factors such as changing consumer preferences and accelerated automation.”

The issue brief, including detailed state and industry data, can be found here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/covid19-recession-us-immigrant-workers.

And for more of MPI’s work on the economic and other fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/coronavirus.

You can also browse monthly unemployment data before and during the pandemic by nativity, gender, race/ethnicity and more with our interactive data tool, which is updated regularly: bit.ly/UnemployTool.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at local, national and international levels.