Covid-19: Immigrant Workers Are Essential in Securing U.S. Food Supply Chain

With at least 42 states under stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. food sector is under an unprecedented test to feed hundreds of millions of Americans amid a pandemic. While the food supply chain is facing severe disruptions in areas ranging from production to transportation to distribution, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that immigrants play a vital role in helping the food sector adapt to these new challenges. 

Overall, 3.8 million immigrants make up more than one in five workers in the U.S. food sector. They are among the essential workers who leave the safety of their homes to handpick fresh vegetables and fruits, process meat and seafood, stock shelves with groceries, and deliver food to people’s doorsteps.

Figure 1: Immigrant Workers in the U.S. Food Sector

Number of Foreign-born Workers Share of All Workers, Foreign-born
Food Sector, Overall 3,806,511 21.6%
Agriculture 546,383 27.6%
Food Processing 500,085 28.7%
Food Wholesale Trade 212,048 24.4%
Grocery Stores and Supermarkets 528,811 16.6%
Restaurants and Food Service 2,019,184 20.5%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

In the states hard hit by the coronavirus, immigrant food workers are particularly important to help keep America’s food supply chain running and ensure people can still get the food they need in this time of crisis. In New York and New Jersey, the states with  the most Covid-19 cases in the country as of mid-April, at least one in three food workers are foreign-born. 

Figure 2: Immigrant Workers in the U.S. Food Sector

State Number of Foreign-born Workers Share of All Workers, Foreign-born
New York 325,972 35.5%
New Jersey 135,932 34.4%
California 980,038 42.5%
Michigan 51,691 10.2%
Massachusetts 92,473 26.9%
Florida 310,152 27.9%
Illinois 150,384 21.8%
Washington 126,331 27.7%
Pennsylvania 76,719 11.6%
Texas 395,888 26.6%
Virginia 72,228 18.3%
Georgia 91,260 16.2%
Arizona 78,930 22.3%
Maryland 66,522 25.3%
North Carolina 82,311 13.9%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

Across the country, farmers and ranchers are committed to providing Americans with safe, affordable food. However, already facing a labor shortage before the outbreak, the agriculture sector relies on immigrant workers to fill the gaps. In 2018, about 27.6 percent of all agricultural workers in the United States were immigrants. In some states, that share is even higher. For example, in California, the country’s top agricultural state, immigrants made up almost two-thirds of the agricultural workforce.

More than ever, the country needs more immigrant workers to manage the disruptions to the agriculture industry. To address the labor challenge due to travel restrictions related to Covid-19, the Homeland Security Department just announced a temporary final rule to allow U.S. farms to employ H-2A workers who are already in the country and these temporary workers to stay beyond three years, their maximum length of stay in the country.

Figure 3: Immigrant Workers in the Agriculture Industry

Number of Foreign-born Workers Share of All Workers, Foreign-born
United States 546,383 27.6%
California 256,362 64.7%
Washington 47,664 50.7%
Florida 37,506 43.8%
Texas 31,526 28.7%
North Carolina 15,545 24.8%
Arizona 11,223 44.0%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

In the next two months, as key vegetables and fruits come into season, farms will increasingly need immigrant workers to take on jobs that are often physically taxing or require specialized skills. Nationwide, immigrants make up close to half of all field workers in the agriculture industry. Their hard work helps ensure farms can harvest the highly perishable products at the right time quickly and fill the grocery store shelves for Americans looking for healthy food.

Figure 4: Select Occupations in the Agriculture Industry in the United States

Occupation Number of Immigrant Workers Immigrants’ Share of Workforce
Field Workers 372,691 48.6%
Graders and Sorters 13,931 62.7%
Hand Packers and Packagers 10,846 73.8%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

In the food processing industry, immigrants also play a critical role in meeting America’s growing appetite for diverse foods. Nationwide, immigrants make up 28.7 percent of all workers in the food processing industry. In California, New Jersey, and Florida, more than 40 percent of their food processing workforce are immigrants.

Figure 5: Immigrant Workers in the Food Processing Industry

Number of Foreign-born Workers Share of All Workers, Foreign-born
United States 500,085 28.7%
New York 19,260 31.5%
New Jersey 19,148 48.2%
California 96,187 51.1%
Florida 19,479 43.7%
Illinois 27,975 29.1%
Washington 15,233 33.8%
Pennsylvania 15,701 19.2%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

Looking at specific occupations, immigrants make up more than half of hand packers and packagers, almost half of meat processing workers, and two in five other food processing workers. But as the coronavirus spreads, they are also becoming increasingly vulnerable, facing significant health risks at work.

Several meatpacking companies have already fallen victim to the coronavirus, including Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer. It has closed its meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, indefinitely, after more than 200 of its workers there became confirmed cases for Covid-19. The food processing industry is struggling with the daunting challenge of preventing a potential food shortage while keeping their workers healthy and safe. 

Figure 6: Select Occupations in the Food Processing Industry in the United States

Occupation Number of Immigrant Workers Immigrants’ Share of Workforce
Packaging and Filling Machine Operators and Tenders 69,115 44.4%
Other Food Processing Workers 52,054 40.6%
Butchers and Other Meat Processing Workers 39,408 49.1%
Bakers 37,602 37.4%
Hand Packers and Packagers 33,592 53.6%
Food Batchmakers 13,125 28.9%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

With mass closures of restaurants and schools, both farms and food processors are shifting their distribution priorities from wholesale food-service markets to retail grocery stores with surging demand, where immigrant workers are integral to their daily operations. While more than 212,000 immigrants work in food wholesale trade, nearly 529,000 immigrants are employed in groceries and supermarkets across the country, making up 16.6 percent of the workforce.

Figure 7: Immigrant Workers in Grocery Stores and Supermarkets

Number of Foreign-born Workers Share of All Workers, Foreign-born
United States 528,811 16.6%
New York 61,577 31.0%
New Jersey 23,564 25.4%
California 120,287 33.7%
Massachusetts 18,343 21.0%
Florida 60,194 25.4%
Illinois 21,792 19.8%
Washington 11,115 15.1%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

In grocery stores and supermarkets, immigrants share responsibilities with their U.S.-born colleagues to make sure customers get the food they need as much as possible. They make up one in seven cashiers, one in eight stockers and order fillers, more than 30 percent of all janitors and building cleaners, and one in five delivery workers. Millions of Americans now count on them to secure enough food for their families who mostly eat at home these days.

However, like workers in meatpacking factories, grocery workers are also facing a heightened risk of infection, due to the nature of their work being in close contact with the public at their workplace. Unfortunately, several grocery stores and supermarkets have already reported deaths among their employees due to Covid-19.

Figure 8: Select Occupations in Groceries and Supermarkets in the United States

Occupation Number of Immigrant Workers Immigrants’ Share of Workforce
Cashiers 122,729 15.3%
Stockers and Order Fillers 48,000 13.4%
Laborers and Material Movers 41,672 13.6%
Retail Salespersons 28,246 23.7%
Janitors and Building Cleaners 11,767 30.7%
Delivery Workers 7,939 20.0%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

Although many restaurants are closed or struggling to remain open, the food service industry is still meeting the demand from people ordering take-outs and delivery of meals and groceries from home. About 2 million immigrants work in this sector, making up one-fifth of its workforce in the country.

Figure 9: Immigrant Workers in Restaurants and Food Service

Number of Foreign-born Workers Share of All Workers, Foreign-born
United States 2,019,184 20.5%
New York 221,478 39.4%
New Jersey 75,394 34.6%
California 441,023 35.9%
Michigan 30,540 9.4%
Massachusetts 57,955 28.2%
Florida 177,842 25.6%
Illinois 89,460 22.9%
Washington 44,581 20.5%
Pennsylvania 37,437 11.0%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

Among the major occupations in the restaurants and food service industry, immigrants make up almost one in three chefs and cooks, one in five food service managers and food preparation workers, one in nine fast food and counter workers, and one in six cashiers and delivery workers.

However, many immigrant workers in the food service industry face economic hardships since the sector is among the ones that have been hit the hardest by the Covid-19 outbreak and the subsequent social distancing measures. For example, since many restaurants can no longer offer dine-in services, waiters and waitresses, including 338,000 immigrant workers, have lost their jobs or are struggling to keep their current ones. In March, the country lost 417,000 jobs at restaurants and bars and may experience even more substantial cuts in April.

Figure 10: Select Occupations in Restaurants and Food Service in the United States

Occupation Number of Immigrant Workers Immigrants’ Share of Workforce
Chefs and Cooks 646,472 31.0%
Waiters and Waitresses 338,193 16.5%
Food Service Managers 200,564 21.5%
Food Preparation Workers 159,967 21.1%
Cashiers 149,004 18.0%
Fast Food and Counter Workers 47,599 11.8%
Delivery Workers 45,898 18.2%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey    

During this severe public health—and now economic—crisis, immigrants are working on the front lines and behind the scenes along the food supply chain to help provide Americans with the food they need, often at their doorsteps. As the pandemic upends life in the country, Yassin Terou, a Syrian refugee who runs two falafel shops in Knoxville, Tennessee, shares his lessons about how to be resilient in crisis and find a pathway forward. So far, his business has managed to stay afloat in the past few weeks, and he hasn’t had to lay off any of his 30 employees. 

If you want to explore how immigrants often disproportionately serve in some of the most at-risk jobs in the Covid-19 crisis, including the food-sector jobs featured in this brief, click the image below to explore our data visualization.

Finally, check out our research portal of Immigration and Covid-19. If you have any specific questions about our data, please reach out to us at info@newamericaneconomy.org.

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