If immigration maintained its 2016 levels, the United States would have 2 million more people today.
Food-related industries have historically relied on low-wage immigrant labor and now face shortages.
This labor pool is also shrinking, as foreign-born workers seek opportunities in other industries.
Within a week of Thanksgiving, inflation continues to make headlines for pushing up food prices, both in grocery stores and in restaurants.
One of the main factors driving these increases is the cost of labor, where companies’ difficulties in finding and retaining staff have a farm-to-fork ripple effect.
Problems in the global supply chain are intrinsically linked to labor issues, but the US food supply chain faces a particular labor shortage that has worsened over the past five years. recent years: workers born abroad.
Had U.S. immigration levels maintained their pre-2016 trajectory, the United States would now have about 2 million more people, analysts at JPMorgan and Grant Thornton estimate.
Although immigration declined under Donald Trump’s presidency, neither he nor his policies were solely responsible. Even so, the rhetoric and political climate of those years likely contributed to the shortfall that employers are currently facing.
Considering the participation rate of 75% of foreign-born residents, this represents 1.5 million fewer workers available to fill the 10 million jobs open in the economy at the moment.
Many of these open jobs are in food-related industries like agriculture, processing and services – industries that have long relied on low-wage immigrant labor, including labor illegal immigrant.
Now this strategy has led to a precarious position.
Restaurants, like farming and processing jobs, tend to offer low wages and poor conditions in many cases, and high turnover means there are almost always jobs available.
These same industries were hit hard by COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. Many undocumented workers, especially in restaurants that closed their doors, lost their jobs, while those who continued to work held frontline positions where they were more likely to be infected, such as in factories. of meat processing with large documented epidemics.
A study by the United States Department of Agriculture found that up to half of workers hired in agriculture did not have the immigrant status necessary to work legally in the United States. Undocumented workers make up about 10% of the restaurant industry, and up to 40% in some urban centers, according to Eater, mostly concentrated in back office roles.
Immigrants without permission typically accept these jobs because they have the fewest options, Daniel Costa, director of research on immigration law and policy at the Economic Policy Institute, told Insider.
These workers are attractive to employers who are willing to take the risk of possible legal action, as unauthorized workers have “virtually no labor rights in practice,” Costa said. They are unlikely to report poor working conditions and wages – or even illegal actions – to their employers because of the repercussions they might face.
Line cooks were the occupation most at risk of dying from COVID-19, according to a UC San Francisco study, followed by machine operators, farm workers and construction workers.
“It’s tough, dirty jobs that are physically dangerous and often demeaning,” said Nathan Dollar, a doctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina who studies farm workers.
In addition to the decrease in immigration to the United States, Dollar explained that the labor problems of farm businesses are also tightening, as foreign-born workers take advantage of better opportunities, such as entrepreneurship. .
Meanwhile, catering workers quit these jobs for better wages and conditions in the warehousing and logistics industry.
With a shrinking foreign-born labor pool and growing opportunities in other industries, Dollar says immigrant workers are less willing to work in degrading or dangerous conditions for low pay.
“You see a new labor movement emerging, and I think that’s probably why people are unwilling to work for these low wages,” he said.
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