Center for American Progress

Protecting Undocumented Workers on the Pandemic’s Front Lines

Protecting Undocumented Workers on the Pandemic’s Front Lines

Immigrants Are Essential to America’s Recovery

Millions of undocumented immigrants are on the front lines working to keep Americans safe, healthy, and supported during the coronavirus pandemic.

In this article
GREENFIELD, CA - APRIL 27: Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa maintain a safe distance as a machine is moved on April 27, 2020 in Greenfield, California. Fresh Harvest is the one of the largest employers of people using the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa for labor, harvesting and staffing in the United States. The company is implementing strict health and safety initiatives for their workers during the coronavirus pandemic and are trying a number of new techniques to enhance safety in the field as well as in work accommodations. Employees have their temperature taken daily and are also asked a series of questions about how they feel. Despite current record unemployment rates in the U.S. due to COVID-19-related layoffs, there have been few applications to do this kind of work despite extensive mandatory advertising by companies such as Fresh Harvest. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa maintain a safe distance as a machine is moved in Greenfield, California, on April 27, 2020. (Getty/Brent Stirton)

Introduction and summary

Across the United States, Americans continue to face the harsh reality of life amid a global pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout. More than 7 million people have lost their jobs since February 2020.1 Americans are worrying about whether and when their children can safely return to school; they have watched their favorite restaurants close, first temporarily and then permanently; and they have been forced to spend holidays without their families and loved ones. And with cases continuing to rise, this public health crisis is far from over.

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Among those Americans bearing the brunt of the pandemic and its economic fallout are 10.4 million undocumented immigrants.2 At the same time, over the past nine months, millions of these immigrants have worked alongside their neighbors to keep the country functioning and safe. They have worked as doctors and nurses caring for loved ones and fighting this pandemic, but these unique times have also highlighted their crucial work as agricultural workers harvesting Americans’ food; clerks stocking grocery shelves; and delivery drivers bringing food to the safety of people’s homes. After decades of taking these jobs for granted, the country has come to realize just how essential these individuals and their contributions are.

The Biden administration and Congress must take decisive action to control the coronavirus pandemic and provide a path for the country to recover economically from the pandemic-induced recession. This will not be an easy task, and any approach must give special consideration to the communities hit hardest by the coronavirus crisis, including undocumented immigrants. Lack of access to health care, ineligibility for many government relief payments, and job instability leave undocumented immigrants especially vulnerable amid the pandemic.3 Providing a path to legal status for undocumented Americans is a key tool that the next administration and Congress should utilize as they work to fight the coronavirus and rebuild the country and its economy.

For years, all Americans have relied on the outsize impacts that undocumented immigrants’ contributions bring to the economy. But the reality is that the U.S. immigration system has not seen meaningful reform for 30 years. For undocumented immigrants—who on average have lived in the country for 15 years—and their 10.2 million family members, the future is tenuous.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Undocumented immigrants and their families are a part of the social fabric of the country. Recognizing that value first and foremost, this report looks at the role of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. workforce, their fiscal and economic contributions to the country, and how an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants—nearly 3 in 4 undocumented immigrants in the workforce—are keeping the country moving forward as essential workers in the face of the pandemic. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is not only the right way to honor these members of the American family, but it would ensure these contributions are not lost for all in the United States. It would also grow those contributions and help to ensure that the nation’s recovery is as bold, dynamic, and equitable as it must be to meet the challenge that the country collectively faces.

Undocumented immigrants in the U.S. workforce

Undocumented immigrants make up approximately 3.2 percent of the U.S. population, but 4.4 percent of the country’s workforce. There are more than 7 million undocumented immigrants working in the United States.

The same is generally true when looking at the states. In every state, undocumented immigrants make up a larger share of the workforce than they do the total population. California and Texas are home to the largest undocumented workforce, with 1.4 million and 1.2 million undocumented workers, respectively. But every state relies on undocumented workers. In 41 states and Washington, D.C., there are more than 10,000 undocumented workers, and in 16 states that total is greater than 100,000.

It is important to recognize that undocumented workers do not take jobs from U.S.-born workers, a myth that has been consistently debunked through years of economics research.4 The reality is that undocumented immigrants fill crucial gaps in the workforce, largely not competing with U.S.-born workers but complimenting them and creating greater economic activity—activity and productivity that can help the country grow out of this pandemic-induced downturn.5

Table 1

The next sections of this report discuss the sectors in which undocumented immigrants play a particularly large role and which of those occupations are likely to see the most growth in the future.

Looking at undocumented workers by industry and occupation

When considering the workforce, there are two frames that are used to discuss workers: industry and occupation. Simply put, the industry represents where someone goes to work, and an occupation represents what someone does while they are at work. For example, someone who works at a hospital works in the “health care and social assistance” industry, while someone who works in a school works in the “educational services” industry.6 A registered nurse falls under the “healthcare practitioners and technical occupations,” while a teacher is considered among “educational instruction and library occupations.”7

This report categorizes industries based on the 2017 North American Industry Classification System and occupations based on the 2018 Standard Occupational Classification system.8

First, consider the data at the broad industry level—groups of workers in different settings who fit into similar categories. More than 1.4 million undocumented immigrants work in construction, accounting for 13 percent of all construction workers. Nearly 1 million immigrants work in accommodation and food services, approximately 8.4 percent of all workers in the industry. Meanwhile, 710,000 undocumented workers make up 10 percent of the administrative and support and waste management industries, and another 489,000 undocumented workers in nonpublic administration services are also overrepresented in the field. (see Methodological Appendix)

When it comes to broad occupational categories, again aggregating many different roles into generalized groupings, undocumented immigrants are overrepresented in six categories, aligned closely with the industries mentioned previously. Approximately 25 percent of workers in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations are undocumented, as are 16 percent of workers in construction and extraction occupations; 15 percent of workers in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations; 8.7 percent of workers in food preparation and serving-related occupations; 7.7 percent of workers in production occupations; and 5.6 percent of workers in transportation and material moving occupations. (see Appendix Table 2)

Occupational data can be especially rich at more detailed levels. Table 2 shows the 15 largest occupations for undocumented immigrants, 14 of which have more than 100,000 workers.

Nearly 1 in 5 landscaping workers, maids or housekeepers, and construction laborers are undocumented immigrants. Nearly 30 percent of agricultural workers or painters are undocumented.

The undocumented agricultural workforce

This analysis uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), and there is an important item to note about the survey with respect to agricultural workers. The ACS is administered throughout the year, which poses difficulty for capturing highly seasonal work such as agriculture. Depending on the time of year a respondent completes the survey, the ACS likely undercounts the actual number of workers in the sector. Combined with the ACS’ difficulty in measuring certain populations, including undocumented immigrants, the estimate of undocumented farmworkers presented here is likely to be lower than reality.9 To that account, the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture estimates that there are 2.4 million farmworkers in the United States, compared with the ACS’ estimate of 1.6 million, and the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey finds that 49 percent of workers in the field are undocumented.10

Table 2

Looking toward the future

Each year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes lists of the 20 fastest-growing occupations and the 20 occupations projected to have the most job growth over the next decade, several of which have sizeable undocumented populations.11 Although published amid the pandemic in September 2020, these projections recognize that the U.S. economy will at some point recover and the basic demographic changes facing the country are inevitable. As Baby Boomers across the United States continue to age, the country will need more care workers to meet the needs of the aging population The BLS projects that the United States will add 1.2 million new home health and personal care aides between now and 2029. It also projects large additions of fast food workers (461,000), restaurant cooks (327,000), freight and stock laborers (126,000), landscaping and groundskeeping workers (120,000), and janitors (106,000)—all occupations with already large numbers of undocumented workers.

Fiscal and economic contributions of undocumented workers

Beyond their presence in the workforce, undocumented workers make major contributions to the U.S. economy through the taxes they pay and their spending. Center for American Progress analysis finds that each year, undocumented workers and their households pay $79.7 billion in federal tax contributions and $41 billion in state and local tax contributions. These tax dollars fund public schools, infrastructure repairs for roads and bridges, and the military. Immigrants are not just economic producers, but consumers as well.12 These households hold $314.9 billion in spending power, and every grocery or small-business purchase made is money that is infused into local economies. Undocumented immigrants own 1.6 million homes, paying $20.6 billion in mortgage payments each year, while other undocumented workers pay $49.1 billion in rental payments annually.

On top of their federal tax contributions, undocumented workers also buoy the social safety net; their employers annually contribute payroll taxes totaling $17 billion for Social Security and $4 billion for Medicare, for which undocumented immigrants are ineligible. For state-level data, please see Appendix Table 3.

A note about the data

The data presented in this report come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 and 2019 1-year ACS public use microdata, which include the most recent data available but does not account for the millions of Americans—both U.S.-born and foreign-born—who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and its economic devastation. Undocumented status further clouds the understanding of employment losses among these immigrants during the pandemic because the lack of immigration status places such individuals at heightened risk of being exploited. Undocumented immigrants are simultaneously vulnerable to being coerced into accepting dangerous work situations and may be among the first workers to be laid off, particularly if they raise concerns.13 Regardless of their current work status, this report analyzes the undocumented U.S. workforce as it existed before the pandemic-induced economywide job losses.

The most important thing that the next administration and Congress can do for the American people is to put the country on a path to recovery. Legalizing undocumented immigrants will advance this effort in myriad ways. As this analysis shows, undocumented workers are valuable contributors to the workforce and the economy, and legalization will provide greater security for millions of individuals in the workforce who are playing an essential role during the current pandemic. But these workers are also family members to millions and neighbors to even more. A pathway to citizenship for these individuals ensures not only that the undocumented community will not be left behind as the economy rebounds, but also that they can fully participate in and contribute to the recovery.

Undocumented immigrants on the front lines of the pandemic response

In March 2020, as the United States first recognized the coronavirus spread and state and local governments began to issue stay-at-home orders, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) published guidance on essential critical infrastructure workers, introducing a list of workers in roles that were deemed vital for continuity of public health and safety.14 This first iteration of critical infrastructure focused on those workers who would still need to access their workplaces despite locally enacted shelter-at-home orders.

These workers have put their safety on the line to help other Americans. In overcapacity intensive care units, doctors, nurses, and aides have treated COVID-19 patients as the understanding of how the coronavirus spreads and how to treat it has evolved. Farmworkers have picked crops; despite outbreaks, workers in meat processing plants have continued their work; and truckers have hauled food across a network of highways to ensure there would never be a food shortage.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 42 states adopted official essential worker orders, with 20 using the CISA framework and 22 shaping their own guidelines.15 States that created their own critical infrastructure lists tended to add sectors that CISA did not originally include. For example, more than half of states included child care providers in their critical infrastructure lists, while other states adopted broader consideration for new construction as opposed to solely repair and maintenance of critical facilities.16

As of November 2020, CISA had expanded this guidance three times. Now in its fourth iteration, released in August 2020, the guidance on the critical infrastructure workforce has been broadened.17 CAP estimates that 5 million undocumented workers—nearly 3 in 4 undocumented immigrants in the workforce—were employed in these sectors at the beginning of the pandemic. Alongside their colleagues, these undocumented essential workers keep critical operations such as energy and telecommunications running, hospitals staffed, and grocery shelves stocked.

Indeed, undocumented immigrants employed in critical infrastructure work in a wide range of jobs. An estimated 1.7 million work in the nation’s food supply chain—from 358,000 farmworkers and food processors to 154,000 working in supermarkets, grocery stores, and convenience stores.

Nearly one-quarter of a million—236,000—undocumented immigrants are working in a health care provision role, from 15,000 registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, to 19,000 lab and diagnostic technicians, to 139,000 home health aides, nursing assistants, and personal care aides. But beyond that, another 188,000 undocumented immigrants are working as custodians, food servers, and administrative workers to keep hospitals, nursing homes, and labs functioning.

Figure 1

The latest CISA guidance attempts to balance the end of stay-at-home orders, a continuing health crisis, and a desire to take steps to jump-start economic growth, resulting in an additional 1.7 million undocumented immigrants being considered essential to maintain the nation’s critical infrastructure since the guidance’s inception. For example, household appliance and electronics stores, along with other stores providing household goods, were added to the list, while the construction and child care definitions were widely expanded.

The workers in this expanded guidance can help transition the United States from treading water to growth. Many working parents—especially women—can only return to their jobs if they can safely send their children back to care facilities.18 Opening construction widely can create jobs and bring investment that translates to economic growth.19

Positioning the United States for recovery means including undocumented immigrants

The most important thing the next administration and Congress can do is to get the spread of the coronavirus under control and create a path for the country to recover economically from the pandemic. Legalizing undocumented immigrants in the labor force is a tool to make this happen. And recognizing that undocumented immigrants have built lives in the United States, such an effort should extend to those immigrants’ undocumented spouses and minor children to preserve family unity. In the case of undocumented workers on the front lines of the pandemic, that would be 1.3 million spouses and minor children.

Regardless of their status, over the years, immigrants have shaped the course of the economy—both in recoveries from economic downturns and by supporting a positive trajectory through population growth.

Immigrants are job creators, starting businesses at a higher rate than the U.S.-born population, and they revitalize neighborhoods with local-serving businesses.20 They are consumers, they seek out and create opportunities, and they increase housing values.21 All of these contributions remain crucial as federal and state governments face massive budget shortfalls brought about by the pandemic.22

In part because of the demographic changes the United States faces—most importantly, the aging and retirement of the Baby Boomer generation—immigrants and their families will bolster the country’s future.23 Researchers estimate that without population growth from immigrants and their children, the working-age population in the United States would contract by 4 percent—7 million workers—between 2015 and 2035, contributing to an economic decline.24 But with new Americans, along with Americans whose parents were born abroad, the working-age population will grow by 10 million.25

This trend is borne out throughout the country. In major metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, a growth in the foreign-born population counterbalanced the shrinking U.S.-born population in the urban core and suburbs.26 This is also the case among rural communities, where population declines were largely—though not entirely—offset by new Americans.27

Recognizing the essential role that undocumented immigrants have played in keeping the country running during the pandemic—as well as the important role that they will continue to play in keeping up the fight and helping the country rebuild—the U.S. House of Representatives twice passed legislation earlier this year to protect these workers. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which passed in May, and a slimmed-down version passed in October, both include provisions that would provide temporary protection from deportation and work authorization to undocumented immigrants working in the critical infrastructure roles detailed above.28 Both bills also separately extend protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

These attempts to provide temporary legal protection are only the latest pieces of legislation offering legal status to a large population of undocumented immigrants to have passed one chamber of Congress in the past 15 years. The U.S. Senate passed large-scale legalization programs included in bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bills in 2006 and 2013. In the past two years, the House passed two additional pieces of legislation on a bipartisan basis that would provide permanent legal status to smaller groups of undocumented immigrants.

In June 2019, the House passed H.R. 6, the American Dream and Promise Act.29 The bill would extend a pathway to citizenship for up to 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, including those who arrived in the United States as children, many of whom were protected under DACA, along with immigrants eligible for TPS; the Trump administration has spent four years trying to terminate both programs.30

Later that year, the House passed H.R. 5038, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which, among other reforms to agriculturally related immigration, would introduce a pathway to permanent residency for longtime undocumented agricultural workers.31 While the House sent both of these bills to the Senate, neither bill has been brought to a vote.

Legalization, followed by a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, will have long-reaching benefits for the U.S. economy. Such reforms would increase earnings and productivity for undocumented workers, eventually leading to increased tax contributions and local spending, along with increasing job creation, wages for U.S.-born workers, and gross domestic product (GDP). 32

While Congress should include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in future legislation, the incoming administration itself also could exercise its authority under Section 212(d)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act to parole in place on a case-by-case basis individuals who would provide a significant public benefit to the country—for example, by continuing to work in jobs recognized by CISA as essential to the critical infrastructure of the country—or otherwise grant such individuals deferred action.33

These actions would benefit the economy as well. Take, for example, the Obama administration’s efforts to implement the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) initiative and to expand DACA. The White House Council on Economic Advisers estimated that granting protection from deportation and work authorization to the 5 million people eligible for these initiatives would yield increases in productivity and wages not just for those eligible, but also for the U.S.-born workforce over the next decade.34 CAP models projected these actions would boost GDP by $164 billion, increase American incomes by $88 billion, and result in the creation of more than 20,000 jobs each year for the next decade.35

Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush exercised another example of executive action to protect undocumented immigrants in the United States. The Family Fairness program, in place from 1987 to 1990, extended protection from deportation to undocumented spouses and children of immigrants eligible for legalization under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.36 The program remained in place until Congress passed legislation offering protections to the estimated 1.5 million undocumented individuals—approximately 40 percent of the undocumented population—who qualified for Family Fairness relief.37

The vast majority of undocumented immigrants—93 percent—are people of color.38 COVID-19 harshly hits communities of color, especially Black, Latinx, and Native American individuals, who experience disproportionate case and death rates and are less likely to be able to work remotely.39 Creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is not just a necessity for economic recovery—it is an issue of economic and racial justice for communities that have been the most vulnerable to the crisis.

More than eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government has not only largely ignored undocumented immigrants, but also locked their U.S. citizen spouses and children out of direct cash payments.40 These payments were a lifeline to financial stability for many through the spring and summer, but they excluded 5.5 million U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who are spouses to or children of undocumented immigrants.41 Many undocumented individuals remain largely unable to access necessary health care.42 They are more likely to face wage theft and discrimination on the job, and without federally recognized identification documents, they have difficulty accessing financial institutions, exacerbating the racial wealth gap.43 As workers, they are ineligible for Social Security or Medicare but pay millions of dollars into these programs each year.44 Future recovery efforts must address status for undocumented immigrants in order to remove the structural barriers these individuals face in the United States.


For Americans across the country—regardless of immigration status—the coronavirus has completely upended day-to-day life. Whether working in person or remotely, facilitating virtual school lessons and caring for loved ones, the country is waiting for the pandemic to end and the economy to be headed toward recovery.

Over the past eight months, undocumented workers have already played an integral role in fighting the pandemic and keeping the country moving, and in the months ahead, the country will count on them to continue this work and contribute to the collective effort to recover and rebuild. As farmworkers, construction laborers, custodial staff, and home health or personal care aides, 7 million undocumented workers lift up major sectors of the workforce—including the 5 million on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic response. Each year, undocumented immigrants and their households contribute billions of dollars in taxes, pay billions in housing payments, and spend billions more in their communities.

As the incoming Biden administration and Congress tackle the coronavirus response and economic recovery, they cannot ignore the many ways undocumented workers keep the country running or what they mean to their families and communities. In designing legislative and administrative programs to deliver relief to all Americans and help the country get back on the path to prosperity, providing legal status to undocumented immigrants must be considered a key tool to ensure the recovery is sufficiently robust and resilient, equitable and inclusive.

About the author

Nicole Prchal Svajlenka is the associate director for research on the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress. At CAP, Svajlenka works on a diverse set of immigration issues, ranging from enforcement to relief, all with a particular focus on data and quantitative analysis. Svajlenka has spent a decade working in think tanks, including at the Brookings Institution, where she conducted research on immigration, human capital, and labor markets in metropolitan areas across the United States, and The Pew Charitable Trusts, where she examined the relationships between federal, state, and local immigration policies. A Chicagoland native, Svajlenka holds a Master of Arts in geography from George Washington University and a Bachelor of Arts in environmental geography from Colgate University.

Methodological appendix

The findings presented in this report are based on CAP analysis of pooled 2018 and 2019 1-year American Community Survey microdata, accessed via the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS USA database.45

Household tax contributions and spending power estimates are based on methodology developed by New American Economy and include all households that contain an undocumented household member.46 The tax rates applied to the microdata come from the Congressional Budget Office and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.47 Spending power is measured as household income after federal, state, and local tax contributions; these data are based on household incomes, which are available in the ACS microdata. 

The analysis calculates mortgage and rental payments for households in which an undocumented immigrant is the head of household or the spouse or unmarried partner of a head of household. Monthly payment information is aggregated from the ACS microdata.

Medicare and Social Security payments are calculated as 6.2 percent and 1.45 percent, respectively. The 7.65 percent tax that undocumented immigrants pay is included in their federal tax payments, but employers also pay an additional 7.65 percent per employee in Social Security and Medicare taxes.48

The text box below shows the occupations and industries coded as essential based on CISA’s “Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce: Ensuring Community and National Resilience In COVID-19 Response.”49

Occupations and industries that CISA considers part of critical infrastructure, by title and occupational code

The following industries and occupations are considered part of critical infrastructure. The coding is based on IPUMS’ IND and OCC variables.50

Occupation codes and titles

205      Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers

310      Food service managers

350      Medical and health services managers

420      Social and community service managers

425      Emergency management directors

510      Buyers and purchasing agents, farm products

1340     Biomedical and agricultural engineers

1430     Industrial engineers, including health and safety

1520     Petroleum, mining and geological engineers, including mining safety engineers

1600     Agricultural and food scientists

1900     Agricultural and food science technicians

2012     Health care social workers

2015     Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists

2016     Social and human service assistants

2100     Lawyers, and judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers

2105     Judicial law clerks

2145     Paralegals and legal assistants

2170     Title examiners, abstractors, and searchers

2180     Legal support workers, all other

2205     Postsecondary teachers

2300     Preschool and kindergarten teachers

2310     Elementary and middle school teachers

2320     Secondary school teachers

2330     Special education teachers

2350     Tutors

2360     Other teachers and instructors

2545     Teaching assistants

2555     Other educational instruction and library workers

3000     Chiropractors

3010     Dentists

3030     Dietitians and nutritionists

3040     Optometrists

3050     Pharmacists

3090     Physicians

3100     Surgeons

3110     Physician assistants

3120     Podiatrists

3140     Audiologists

3150     Occupational therapists

3160     Physical therapists

3200     Radiation therapists

3210     Recreational therapists

3220     Respiratory therapists

3230     Speech-language pathologists

3245     Other therapists

3250     Veterinarians

3255     Registered nurses

3256     Nurse anesthetists

3258     Nurse practitioners, and nurse midwives

3261     Acupuncturists

3270     Health care diagnosing or treating practitioners, all other

3300     Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians

3310     Dental hygienists

3321     Cardiovascular technologists and technicians

3322     Diagnostic medical sonographers

3323     Radiologic technologists and technicians

3324     Magnetic resonance imaging technologists

3330     Nuclear medicine technologists and medical dosimetrists

3401     Emergency medical technicians

3402     Paramedics

3421     Pharmacy technicians

3422     Psychiatric technicians

3423     Surgical technologists

3424     Veterinary technologists and technicians

3430     Dietetic technicians and ophthalmic medical technicians

3500     Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses

3515     Medical records specialists

3520     Opticians, dispensing

3545     Miscellaneous health technologists and technicians

3550     Other health care practitioners and technical occupations

3601     Home health aides

3602     Personal care aides

3603     Nursing assistants

3605     Orderlies and psychiatric aides

3610     Occupational therapy assistants and aides

3620     Physical therapist assistants and aides

3630     Massage therapists

3640     Dental assistants

3645     Medical assistants

3646     Medical transcriptionists

3647     Pharmacy aides

3648     Veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers

3649     Phlebotomists

3655     Other health care support workers

3700     First-line supervisors of correctional officers

3710     First-line supervisors of police and detectives

3720     First-line supervisors of firefighting and prevention workers

3725     Miscellaneous first-line supervisors, protective service workers

3740     Firefighters

3750     Fire inspectors

3801     Bailiffs

3802     Correctional officers and jailers

3820     Detectives and criminal investigators

3840     Fish and game wardens and parking enforcement officers

3870     Police officers

3945     Transportation security screeners

4000     Chefs and head cooks

4010     First-line supervisors of food preparation and serving workers

4020     Cooks

4030     Food preparation workers

4055     Fast food and counter workers

4110     Waiters and waitresses

4120     Food servers, nonrestaurant

4130     Dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers

4140     Dishwashers

4150     Hosts and hostesses, restaurant, lounge, and coffee shop

4160     Food preparation and serving related workers, all other

4240     Pest control workers

4461     Embalmers, crematory operators, and funeral attendants

4465     Morticians, undertakers, and funeral arrangers

4600     Childcare workers

5220     Court, municipal, and license clerks

5250     Eligibility interviewers, government programs

5730     Medical secretaries and administrative assistants

6005     First-line supervisors of farming, fishing, and forestry workers

6010     Agricultural inspectors

6040     Graders and sorters, agricultural products

6050     Other agricultural workers

6115     Fishing and hunting workers

6660     Construction and building inspectors

6730     Highway maintenance workers

7320     Home appliance repairers

7410     Electrical power-line installers and repairers

7420     Telecommunications line installers and repairers

7800     Bakers

7810     Butchers and other meat, poultry, and fish processing workers

7830     Food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders

7840     Food batchmakers

7850     Food cooking machine operators and tenders

7855     Food processing workers, all other

8600     Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers

8610     Stationary engineers and boiler operators

8620     Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators

9040     Air traffic controllers and airfield operations specialists

9110     Ambulance drivers and attendants, except emergency medical technicians

9410     Transportation inspectors

9800     Military officer special and tactical operations leaders

9810     First-line enlisted military supervisors

9825     Military enlisted tactical operations and air/weapons specialists and crew members

9830     Military, rank not specified

Industry codes and titles

170      Crop production

180      Animal production and aquaculture

280      Fishing, hunting and trapping

290      Support activities for agriculture and forestry

370      Oil and gas extraction

570      Electric power generation, transmission and distribution

580      Natural gas distribution

590      Electric and gas, and other combinations

670      Water, steam, air-conditioning, and irrigation systems

680      Sewage treatment facilities

690      Not specified utilities

770      Construction (the cleaning of buildings and dwellings is incidental during construction and immediately after construction)

1070     Animal food, grain and oilseed milling

1080     Sugar and confectionery products

1090     Fruit and vegetable preserving and specialty food manufacturing

1170     Dairy product manufacturing

1180     Animal slaughtering and processing

1190     Retail bakeries

1270     Bakeries and tortilla manufacturing, except retail bakeries

1280     Seafood and other miscellaneous foods, n.e.c.

1290     Not specified food industries

1370     Beverage manufacturing

1870     Pulp, paper, and paperboard mills

1880     Paperboard container manufacturing

1890     Miscellaneous paper and pulp products

2070     Petroleum refining

2090     Miscellaneous petroleum and coal products

2170     Resin, synthetic rubber, and fibers and filaments manufacturing

2180     Agricultural chemical manufacturing

2190     Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing

2270     Paint, coating, and adhesive manufacturing

2280     Soap, cleaning compound, and cosmetics manufacturing

2370     Plastics product manufacturing

2380     Tire manufacturing

2390     Rubber products, except tires, manufacturing

2470     Pottery, ceramics, and plumbing fixture manufacturing

2480     Clay building material and refractories manufacturing

2490     Glass and glass product manufacturing

2570     Cement, concrete, lime, and gypsum product manufacturing

2590     Miscellaneous nonmetallic mineral product manufacturing

2670     Iron and steel mills and steel product manufacturing

2680     Aluminum production and processing

2690     Nonferrous metal (except aluminum) production and processing

2770     Foundries

2780     Metal forgings and stampings

2790     Cutlery and hand tool manufacturing

2870     Structural metals, and boiler, tank, and shipping container manufacturing

2880     Machine shops; turned product; screw, nut, and bolt manufacturing

2890     Coating, engraving, heat treating, and allied activities

2970     Ordnance

2980     Miscellaneous fabricated metal products manufacturing

2990     Not specified metal industries

3070     Agricultural implement manufacturing

3080     Construction, and mining and oil and gas field machinery manufacturing

3095     Commercial and service industry machinery manufacturing

3170     Metalworking machinery manufacturing

3180     Engine, turbine, and power transmission equipment manufacturing

3291     Machinery manufacturing, n.e.c. or not specified

3470     Household appliance manufacturing

3570     Motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment manufacturing

3580     Aircraft and parts manufacturing

3590     Aerospace products and parts manufacturing

3670     Railroad rolling stock manufacturing

3680     Ship and boat building

3690     Other transportation equipment manufacturing

3770     Sawmills and wood preservation

3780     Veneer, plywood, and engineered wood products

3790     Prefabricated wood buildings and mobile homes manufacturing

3960     Medical equipment and supplies manufacturing

4070     Motor vehicle and motor vehicle parts and supplies merchant wholesalers

4170     Professional and commercial equipment and supplies merchant wholesalers

4195     Household appliances and electrical and electronic goods merchant wholesalers

4265     Hardware, and plumbing and heating equipment, and supplies merchant wholesalers

4270     Machinery, equipment, and supplies merchant wholesalers

4380     Drugs, sundries, and chemical and allied products merchant wholesalers

4470     Grocery and related product merchant wholesalers

4480     Farm product raw material merchant wholesalers

4560     Alcoholic beverages merchant wholesalers

4580     Miscellaneous nondurable goods merchant wholesalers

4690     Automotive parts, accessories, and tire stores

4770     Furniture and home furnishings stores

4780     Household appliance stores

4795     Electronics Stores

4870     Building material and supplies dealers

4880     Hardware stores

4890     Lawn and garden equipment and supplies stores

4971     Supermarkets and other grocery (except convenience) stores

4972     Convenience Stores

4980     Specialty food stores

4990     Beer, wine, and liquor stores

5070     Pharmacies and drug stores

5080     Health and personal care, except drug, stores

5090     Gasoline stations

5170     Clothing stores

5180     Shoe stores

5190     Jewelry, luggage, and leather goods stores

5275     Sporting goods, and hobby and toy stores

5280     Sewing, needlework, and piece goods stores

5295     Musical instrument and supplies stores

5370     Book stores and news dealers

5381     Department stores

5391     General merchandise stores, including warehouse clubs and supercenters

5593     Electronic shopping and mail-order houses

6070     Air transportation

6080     Rail transportation

6090     Water transportation

6170     Truck transportation

6180     Bus service and urban transit

6190     Taxi and limousine service

6270     Pipeline transportation

6290     Services incidental to transportation

6370     Postal Service

6380     Couriers and messengers

6390     Warehousing and storage

6670     Broadcasting (except internet)

6672     Internet publishing and broadcasting and web search portals

6680     Wired telecommunications carriers

6690     Telecommunications, except wired telecommunications carriers

6695     Data processing, hosting, and related services

6770     Libraries and archives

6780     Other information services, except libraries and archives, and internet publishing and broadcasting and web search portals

6870     Banking and related activities

6880     Savings institutions, including credit unions

6890     Nondepository credit and related activities

6970     Securities, commodities, funds, trusts, and other financial investments

6991     Insurance carriers

6992     Agencies, brokerages, and other insurance related activities

7680     Investigation and security services

7790     Waste management and remediation services

7970     Offices of physicians

7980     Offices of dentists

7990     Offices of chiropractors

8070     Offices of optometrists

8080     Offices of other health practitioners

8090     Outpatient care centers

8170     Home health care services

8180     Other health care services

8191     General medical and surgical hospitals, and specialty (except psychiatric and substance abuse) hospitals

8192     Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals

8270     Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities)

8290     Residential care facilities, except skilled nursing facilities

8370     Individual and family services

8380     Community food and housing, and emergency services

8390     Vocational rehabilitation services

8470     Child day care services

8680     Restaurants and other food services

8770     Automotive repair and maintenance

8780     Car washes

8891     Personal and household goods repair and maintenance

9070     Drycleaning and laundry services

9470     Justice, public order, and safety activities

9670     U. S. Army

9680     U. S. Air Force

9690     U. S. Navy

9770     U. S. Marines

9780     U. S. Coast Guard

9790     Armed Forces, Branch not specified

9870     Military Reserves or National Guard

A worker is considered essential if they meet the criteria for a code in each of the following lists:

Occupation codes and titles

230      Education and childcare administrators

1821     Clinical and counseling psychologists

1822     School psychologists

1825     Other psychologists

2001     Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors

2002     Educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors

2003     Marriage and family therapists

2004     Mental health counselors

2005     Rehabilitation counselors

2006     Counselors, all other

2011     Child, family, and school social workers

2013     Mental health and substance abuse social workers

2014     Social workers, all other

2435     Librarians and media collections specialists

2440     Library technicians

4200     First-line supervisors of housekeeping and janitorial workers

4210     First-line supervisors of landscaping, lawn service, and groundskeeping workers

4220     Janitors and building cleaners

4251     Landscaping and groundskeeping workers

4252     Tree trimmers and pruners

4255     Other grounds maintenance workers

5710     Executive secretaries and executive administrative assistants

5720     Legal secretaries and administrative assistants

5740     Secretaries and administrative assistants, except legal, medical, and executive

9121     Bus drivers, school

Industry codes and titles

7860     Elementary and secondary schools

7870     Colleges, universities, and professional schools, including junior colleges

7880     Business, technical, and trade schools and training

7890     Other schools and instruction, and educational support services

Appendix Table 1

Appendix Table 2

Appendix Table 3


  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The Employment Situation—February 2020,” Press release, March 6, 2020, available at; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table A-1. Employment status of the civilian population by sex and age,” available at (last accessed November 2020).
  2. Center for American Progress analysis of pooled 2018 and 2019 1-year American Community Survey microdata, accessed via Steven Ruggles and others, “Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, U.S. Census Data for Social, Economic, and Health Research, 2018 and 2019 American Community Surveys: 1-year estimates” (Minneapolis: Minnesota Population Center, 2020), available at Unless otherwise noted, all analysis in this report is CAP analysis.
  3. Eva Clark and others, “Disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on immigrant communities in the United Statas,” PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 14 (7) (2020), available at; Tracy Jan, “Undocumented workers among those hit first—and worst—by the coronavirus shutdown,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2020, available at
  4. Alex Nowrasteh, “Three Reasons Why Immigrants Aren’t Going to Take Your Job,” Cato Institute, April 22, 2020, available at; Brennan Hoban, “Do immigrants ‘steal’ jobs from American workers?”, Brookings Institution, August 24, 2017, available at
  5. Giovanni Peri, “How Immigrants Can Help the ‘Transition to a Great Economy’ after COVID-19” (Logan, UT: Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, 2020), available at
  6. U.S. Census Bureau, “North American Industry Classification System: 2017 NAICS,” available at (last accessed October 2020).
  7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “2018 SOC Definitions,” available at (last accessed October 2020).
  8. Ibid.; U.S. Census Bureau, “North American Industry Classification System.”
  9. Ron Jarmin, “Counting Everyone Once, Only Once and in the Right Place,” U.S. Census Bureau, November 5, 2018, available at
  10. National Agricultural Statistics Service, “2017 Census of Agriculture: United States Summary and State Data” (Washington: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2019), available at,_Chapter_1_US/usv1.pdf;

    Trish Hernandez and Susan Gabbard, “Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2015-2016: A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers” (Rockville, MD: JBS International, 2019), available at For more information, see Ryan Edwards and Francesc Ortega, “The Economic Impacts of Removing Unauthorized Immigrant Workers: An Industry- and State-Level Analysis” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2016), available at

  11. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Most New Jobs,” available at (last accessed November 2020); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Fastest Growing Occupations,” available at (last accessed November 2020).
  12. Cesar Maximiliano Estrada, “How Immigrants Positively Affect the Business Community and the U.S. Economy,” Center for American Progress, June 22, 2016, available at; Peri, “How Immigrants Can Help the ‘Transition to a Great Economy’ after COVID-19.”
  13. Annette Bernhardt and others, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities” (New York: National Employment Law Project, 2009), available at; Josselyn Andrea Garcia Quijano, “Workplace Discrimination and Undocumented First-Generation Latinx Immigrants,” Advocates’ Forum (2020), available at  
  14. Christopher C. Krebs, “Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response,” U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, March 19, 2020, available at
  15. National Conference of State Legislatures, “COVID-19: Essential Workers in the States,” available at (last accessed October 2020).
  16. Ibid.
  17. Christopher C. Krebs, “Advisory Memorandum on Ensuring Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers Ability to Work During the COVID-19 Response,” U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, August 18, 2020, available at
  18. Julie Kashen, Sarah Jayne Glynn, and Amanda Novello, “How COVID-19 Sent Women’s Workforce Progress Backward: Congress’ $64.5 Billion Mistake” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2020), available at
  19. National Association of Homebuilders, “What Building 1,000 Homes Means to the U.S. Economy,” April 2, 2020, available at
  20. Kauffman Foundation, “Kauffman Compilation: Research on Immigration and Entrepreneurship” (Kansas City, MO: 2016), available at; David Dyssegaard Kallick, “Bringing Vitality to Main Street: How Immigrant Small Businesses Help Local Economies Grow” (New York: Fiscal Policy Institute and Americas Society/Council of the Americas, 2015), available at
  21. Peri, “How Immigrants Can Help the ‘Transition to a Great Economy’ after COVID-19”; Jacob L. Vigdor, “Immigration and the Revival of American Cities: From Preserving Manufacturing Jobs to Strengthening the Housing Market” (New York: Americas Society/Council of The Americas and New American Economy, 2013), available at; The Immigrant Learning Center, “Immigrants Make Our Economy More Resilient,” April 22, 2020, available at
  22. Elizabeth McNichol and Michael Leachman, “States Continue to Face Large Shortfalls Due to COVID-19 Effects” (Washington: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 2020), available at
  23. Marketplace, “How immigration could help a shrinking American labor force,” January 29, 2019, available at
  24. Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “Immigration projected to drive growth in U.S. working-age population through at least 2035,” Pew Research Center, March 8, 2017, available at; Charles I. Jones, “The End of Economic Growth? Unintended Consequences of a Declining Population” (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2020), available at
  25. Ibid.
  26. William H. Frey, “As American spread out, immigrations plays a crucial role in local population growth” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2019), available at
  27. Silva Mathema, Nicole Prchal Svajlenka, and Anneliese Hermann, “Revival and Opportunity: Immigrants in Rural America” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at
  28. The Heroes Act, H.R. 6800, 116th Cong., 2nd sess. (May 12, 2020), available at; Nicole Narea, “Immigrants were largely overlooked in the US’s coronavirus response. The latest relief bill aims to fix that.”, Vox, May 15, 2020, available at
  29. American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, H.R. 6, 116th Cong., 1st sess. (June 4, 2019), available at
  30. Nicole Prchal Svajlenka, “The American Dream and Promise Act of 2019: State-by-State Fact Sheets,” Center for American Progress, May 28, 2019, available at; National Immigration Law Center, “DACA,” available at (last accessed October 2020); Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., “Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED),” available at (last accessed October 2020).     
  31. Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, H.R. 5038, 116th Cong., 1st sess. (December 11, 2019), available at; Danilo Zak, “Bill Summary: Farm Workforce Modernization Act” (Washington: National Immigration Forum, 2019), available at
  32. Pieter Bevelander and Don J. DeVoretz, “The Economic Case for a Clear, Quick Pathway to Citizenship: Evidence from Europe and North America” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2014), available at; Adriana Kugler and Patrick Oakford, “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Will Benefit American Workers” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2013), available at; President Barack Obama White House Archives, “Fixing Our Broken Immigration System: The Economic Benefits of Providing a Path to Earned Citizenship” (Washington: 2013), available at
  33. Marshall Fitz, “What the President Can Do on Immigration If Congress Fails to Act” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2014), available at
  34. President Barack Obama White House Archives, “The Economic Effects of Administrative Action on Immigration” (Washington: 2014), available at
  35. Lizet Ocampo, “The Economic Benefits and Electoral Implications of DAPA,” Center for American Progress, May 19, 2015, available at
  36. American Immigration Council, “Reagan-Bush Family Fairness: A Chronological History” (Washington: 2014), available at
  37. Ibid.
  38. Center for American Progress analysis of pooled 2018 and 2019 1-year American Community Survey microdata, accessed via Ruggles and others, “Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, U.S. Census Data for Social, Economic, and Health Research, 2018 and 2019 American Community Surveys: 1-year estimates.”
  39. APM Research Lab Staff, “The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.” (St. Paul, MN: APM Research Lab 2020), available at; Connor Maxwell, “Workers of Color Are Disproportionately at Risk of Serious Complications From the Coronavirus,” Center for American Progress, May 4, 2020, available at; Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz, “Not everybody can work from home,” Economic Policy Institute, March 19, 2020, available at
  40. Ryan Zamarripa, “A Phase 4 Coronavirus Relief Bill Must Include Protections for Undocumented Immigrants,” Center for American Progress, April 16, 2020, available at
  41. Jeehoon Han, Bruce D. Meyer, and James X. Sullivan, “Income and Poverty in the COVID-19 Pandemic” (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2020), available at; Muzaffar Chishti and Jessica Bolter, “Vulnerable to COVID-19 and in Frontline Jobs, Immigrants Are Mostly Shut Out of U.S. Relief,” Migration Policy Institute, April 24, 2020, available at
  42. Whitney L. Duncan and Sarah B. Horton, “Serious Challenges And Potential Solutions For Immigrant Health During COVID-19,” Health Affairs, April 18, 2020, available at
  43. Bernhardt and others, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers”; Joe Valenti, “Building Financial Security by Overcoming Identification Barriers,” Center for American Progress, December 15, 2016, available at; José A,. Quiñonez, “What Wealth Inequality Means for the Newest Americans,” Aspen Institute, March 15, 2017, available at
  44. Nina Roberts, “Undocumented immigrants quietly pay billions into Social Security and receive no benefits,” Marketplace, January 28, 2019, available at
  45. Data accessed via Steven Ruggles and others, “Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, U.S. Census Data for Social, Economic, and Health Research, 2016, 2017, and 2018 American Community Surveys: 1-year estimates.”
  46. New American Economy, “Map the Impact: Methodology,” available at (last accessed October 2020).
  47. Congressional Budget Office, “The Distribution of Household Income, 2017,” available at (last accessed November 2020); Meg Wiehe and others, “Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States, Sixth Edition” (Washington: The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, 2018), available at
  48. Internal Revenue Service, “Topic No. 751 Social Security and Medicare Withholding Rates,” available at (last accessed October 2020).
  49. Krebs, “Advisory Memorandum on Ensuring Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers Ability to Work During the COVID-19 Response.”
  50. Ibid; Center for American Progress analysis of pooled 2018 and 2019 1-year American Community Survey microdata, accessed via Ruggles and others, “Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, U.S. Census Data for Social, Economic, and Health Research, 2018 and 2019 American Community Surveys: 1-year estimates.”

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Nicole Svajlenka

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