Immigrant workers make essential contributions to Washington state
Immigrants are vital members of Washington state’s bustling economy and vibrant community. In fact, new data from the Immigration Research Initiative (IRI) shows that immigrant workers, which include green card holders, asylees, and undocumented immigrants, play an outsized role in strengthening Washington’s labor force and economy.
While immigrants only make up 15% of Washington’s population, they disproportionately make up 19% of the labor force and provide 21% of the state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is roughly $145 billion a year. Their contributions help enable Washington’s standing as one of the top ten earning GDP states in the country. Despite that, structural barriers and policies deny immigrants full access to opportunity and the ability to thrive. The data makes clear that Washington lawmakers must do more to ensure all immigrants have equitable access to opportunities and equal treatment in the workforce.
Immigrants make wages across the economic spectrum, but are overrepresented in low-wage jobs
Regardless of whether they receive a high or low wage, immigrants work in all types of jobs that are undeniably important to the economy and our everyday lives. Many immigrants care for the health and well-being of our families by working as physicians and agricultural workers. Immigrants also provide critical daily services, such as delivering our mail as postal clerks and providing language access as interpreters.
While 28% of immigrants in Washington hold positions that pay $124,000 or more annually, the reality is that too many immigrants are subject to low-wage jobs that hold them back from economic prosperity. In fact, 25% of immigrants in Washington are in work that pays $42,000 or less annually. In Washington, $42,000 may barely cover the cost of living for one adult without a child.
Not only do immigrants hold a greater share of low-wage jobs, but many of these occupations can be unsafe and precarious for workers. As an example, agricultural workers have experienced unprecedented heat and smoke the last few years, which puts them at a greater risk for heat strokes, heart attacks, and respiratory issues. All immigrant workers deserve safer conditions in the work force and greater pay that reflects the true value of their work.
Racial and gender discrimination play a key role in the economic realities of immigrant workers
Black, Brown, and women workers have historically experienced discrimination in the workforce, and the IRI data shows that this racial and gender discrimination also impacts immigrant workers, resulting in fewer job opportunities and lower wages. For example, an immigrant Latinx man in Washington receives a middle wage of $49,685, while an immigrant Black woman in Washington receives a middle wage of $48,327. In contrast, a U.S. born white man receives a middle wage of $64,719. (Note: IRI uses the term “middle wage”, defined as the range between someone making two thirds of the median wage to double the median wage, to capture a picture of the middle class.)It’s past time to improve our state policies to provide economic opportunity, equal pay, and physical safety for immigrant workers, just as immigrant workers provide and care for all of us in Washington. Click To Tweet
Otherwise put, white men in a middle wage job make on average $31/hour while immigrant black women make $23/hour for the same work. This means that over a course of a 40-year career, a white man in middle wage work receives $655,680 more than an immigrant Black woman in the same position. That $655,680 is money that could buy a home, pay for childcare, and help children pay for college, boosting a family’s economic stability and their ability to build generational wealth. Immigrants and communities of color must receive equal wages to their white counterparts.
Immigrant workers must be included in the public supports they pay into
Immigrants are essential to making our economy and state work. Immigrant workers provide essential services that support our everyday lifestyles and are significant contributors to the state GDP. However, immigrant workers are often unjustly excluded from public supports, like unemployment insurance, that provides them a safety net while they secure their job. Immigrant workers also experience extra barriers to financial stability due to racial and gender discrimination, and federal policies, like the public charge, which deter immigrants from applying to public programs such as health care. All workers deserve dignity in their workplace and resources to live well and provide for their families.
No matter who we are, where we come from, or how we make a living, everyone in Washington state deserves the opportunity for financial stability, community connection, and joy. Legislators can do more to provide immigrant families greater economic security and opportunity through the passage of an unemployment insurance program for immigrant workers, and by providing full funding for health care insurance to cover all immigrants who are income eligible. It’s past time to improve our state policies to provide economic opportunity, equal pay, and physical safety for immigrant workers, just as immigrant workers provide and care for all of us in Washington.
Stay tuned for our 2024 legislative agenda.