As the country reopens, immigrant communities of color are in danger of being left on permanent lockdown. As the economy rebounds, the immigrant workforce is at risk of shrinking if we don’t act.
Despite their contributions as essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, low-wage immigrant workers of color face a significant hurdle in moving forward. Digital tools that are rapidly accelerating many employment sectors threaten to leave these particular immigrants further behind technologically.
At Sant La, we’ve been aware of the struggles with technology the organization’s inception 20 years ago. After all, even though immigrants make up 17 percent of the country’s labor force, or 29 million, they’re more likely than U.S.-born workers to work in lower-skilled occupations, fill roles that Americans do not want, and earn 15 percent less, according to the Pew Research Center. So we’ve heard the stories about inequity for some time.
In the past six months, however, we’ve felt these forces more acutely than ever before.
The proliferation of digital tools has brought to light the technological deficiencies of many immigrant workers in a more concrete, urgent manner than we previously realized.
The awakening began in April, when we were receiving an influx of 200 calls a day from clients — 95 percent of whom were blue-collar Haitians with little education or English proficiency— seeking help to complete unemployment insurance forms and other basic needs online. Given that South Florida’s service sector employs 40 percent of Haitians and that Sant La has assisted with online unemployment applications for 15 years, we expected some activity. But the sheer volume and the age range of those who sought services shocked us.
Sant La served more than 1,200 clients in their 30s to their 60s in April, May and June. It was a real eye-opener that so many young and middle-aged workers in this group needed click-by-click help.
Another revealing moment was the roadblock we hit as we pivoted to offer our parenting, counseling and job-training programs virtually. Most clients were unable to access our basic web-based tools. This same deficiency also undermined their ability to help children learn remotely, have telehealth consultations or take advantage of resources designed to help them, which were only available through online applications.
Imagine sitting at a computer and learning to move a mouse to control your cursor. It is that basic for some of our clients. Even those who use smartphones regularly have trouble leveraging them for work. One 43-year-old hotel housekeeper, Josiane, recently demonstrated how she accesses YouTube, WhatsApp, texts, and phone calls from her smartphone. When we asked her about Zoom, she said, “Oh no, I don’t know that one.”
While most American workers had not previously used videoconferencing and virtual collaboration tools, the majority adapted quickly enough. These platforms also require interaction, not only the “click-and-watch” familiarity of consumer apps. For people like Josiane to succeed, she needs to become comfortable navigating devices and applications.
To overcome these challenges, Sant La is taking a “fail fast” approach to upskilling immigrants technologically by sketching out a framework for a client-centered digital transformation plan.
We’re developing the “An-n Pale Tech” initiative, a digital-tools crash course that translates into “let’s talk tech.” It will include an overview of the most common virtual communication apps used in multisector workplaces. We will enroll 40 people in this pilot, delivered in English and Creole.
We’re also inviting local and national partners to co-create hands-on tech training specifically for Creole speakers, with linguistic and educational challenges taken into consideration. We need public and private partnerships to design, fund, and execute these initiatives; then scale.
Yes, there is much work to be done. We call on community members to collaborate with us in re-imagining immigrant communities and priming them to succeed financially, emotionally, and socially — during this new normal and well beyond.
Gepsie M. Metellus is the co-founder and executive director of Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in Miami.