CORONAVIRUS

Immigrant workers fear exposing families to coronavirus

Some on front lines have jobs and health at risk

Magdalena Rivera Ramirez lives with two young children and her younger brother in Coralville. Like others, she faces unc
Magdalena Rivera Ramirez lives with two young children and her younger brother in Coralville. Like others, she faces uncertainty as businesses have had to close to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Magdalena Rivera Ramirez and Modesta Mateo Pedro, both Guatemalan immigrants living in the Iowa City area, have seen their hours reduced at the McDonald’s where they work.

Their experiences enduring hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic mirror those of other immigrants across the nation, many of whom have remained on the pandemic front line in consumer-facing positions that expose them to higher infection risks.

Nationwide, immigrants make up 18.2 percent of food delivery workers, 16.7 percent of grocery store employees and 16.5 percent of health care workers, according to an analysis of federal data by New American Economy, a New York research and advocacy organization.

Ramirez, 26, who lives in Coralville with two young children and her underage brother, said she normally earns about $600 every two weeks, making use of a work permit to serve on the kitchen staff at a McDonald’s restaurant.

That figure has dropped to about $400 to $450, as eight-hour shifts have become five-hour shifts. Despite concerns over food and rent payments, Ramirez said she is considering not going to work at all.

“I’m scared that I’ll get (COVID-19) and give it to my kids,” she said last week through an interpreter. “My daughter has asked if she could go back to Guatemala to stay with her grandmother because they’re just cooped up in this tiny apartment all day.”

Pedro, 32, who lives in Iowa City with three children while awaiting an asylum decision, works at a different McDonald’s and said she has thought about asking her manager if she can take a couple of weeks off work.

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The prospect of catching the virus is a major concern for Pedro, whose family does not have health care coverage. If McDonald’s laid her off, however, Pedro said she would struggle to find a new job within walking distance of home, as she does not have a car.

“I am trying really hard not to go anywhere except my work and back home because I want to prevent this illness from getting into my home,” she said.

Beyond regular deep cleanings at its restaurants, McDonald’s in March announced it will pay corporate-owned restaurant employees who are asked to quarantine for up to 14 days. Sick leave policies can vary, however, across the company’s independent franchisee-owned restaurants, which compose more than 90 percent of McDonald’s locations.

Both Ramirez and Pedro have received help in keeping food on the table — with Ramirez getting grocery deliveries from the Iowa City Catholic Worker House and a friend dropping public school lunches off for Pedro’s children.

Schooling also has required adjustments for Corridor immigrant families and their children.

Pedro said she sometimes will give her children a Bible to read during the day. Ramirez and Heybi Jakelin Torres, 31, are awaiting deliveries of school computers so their kids can complete assignments online.

Torres, a Honduran immigrant awaiting an asylum hearing in January, in March bought a manufactured home in Iowa City’s Hilltop Mobile Home Park, where she lives with her 11-year-old son, Isaac Lopez-Torres.

“I show him videos and I talk to him about the illness,” she said through an interpreter. “I tell him the name of (the coronavirus), how it’s transmitted through coughing and that sort of thing. He still has trouble understanding it.”

Torres does not leave home except to go to work as a cleaner at Procter & Gamble, where she must wear a face mask and undergo a daily screening before entering the facility.

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”We’re asking God for help,” she said. “We’re asking Him for a lot because we really need to work so we can pay our bills and pay our debts off.”

Norma, a 44-year-old undocumented immigrant from Honduras, has lived in Hilltop for more than 10 years with her husband and their 3-year-old daughter. Norma and 10 other employees several weeks ago were laid off from an Iowa City fast food restaurant that was not successful in transitioning to carryout orders.

Through tears, Norma expressed fear over the deathly nature of COVID-19 — “I wish this was a movie and then I could just turn it off and have it be over. ... We’re all on the list for coronavirus. We can all die from this.”

Norma said that without her restaurant job, it has become impossible for her to send money back to Honduras, where she supports her mother and two other children.

“All the areas down there are very poor,” she said. “When I send money to my kids, they’re better off, but right now, they’re going through a really hard time.”

After the pandemic clears, Norma said, “The first thing I’d like to do is give my kids in Honduras a hug and say, ‘We made it through.’”

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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