Immigrants play a big role in Oregon’s economy + labor activity surges

Immigrants play a big role in Oregon’s economy + labor activity surges

In the spirit of May Day, we discuss the contribution of immigrants to Oregon's economy, as well as what the data says about the surge in labor activity.

Immigrants play a big role in Oregon’s economy + labor activity surges

The month of May began with the celebration of International Workers’ Day. May Day, as it’s often called, dates back to the late 19th Century, when labor movements that counted on heavy participation by immigrant workers agitated for better working conditions. Today in the U.S., May Day celebrates both the labor movement and the immigrant community.

In that spirit, this episode of Policy for the People focuses on both the labor movement and immigrants. Anthony Capote of the Immigration Research Initiative discusses the findings of a report he co-wrote titled Immigrants in the Oregon Economy: Overcoming Hurdles, Yet Still Facing Barriers. Also, Kathy Lara of the Oregon Center for Public Policy talks about the latest figures on labor activity in Oregon, as well as the challenges that workers seeking to form a union continue to encounter.

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We make this transcript available for your convenience and to increase the accessibility of our content. The transcript was generated by software and was slightly edited for clarity. If you are able to, we encourage you to listen to the recording.

The month of May began with a celebration of International Workers’ Day. May Day, as it’s often called, dates back to the late 19th century, when labor movements that counted on heavy participation by immigrant workers agitated for better working conditions. Today in the U.S., May Day serves to celebrate both the labor movement and the immigrant community. 

In that spirit, this episode of Policy for the People touches on both the labor movement and immigrants. In the latter part of the show, we get an update on the latest figures on labor activity in Oregon, as well as the challenges that workers seeking to form a union continue to encounter.

But we begin with a look at the contributions of immigrants to Oregon’s economy. We speak with Anthony Capote, senior policy analyst with Immigration Research Initiative. Anthony is the coauthor of a recently released report titled Immigrants in Oregon Overcoming Hurdles Yet Still Facing Barriers. Here’s my conversation with Anthony Capote. 

Juan Carlos Ordóñez (host):  Anthony, welcome to Policy for the People. 

Anthony Capote: Thank you so much, Juan Carlos. It’s great to be here.

Juan Carlos: Can you share with our listeners a little bit about the Immigration Research initiative? 

Anthony: We are a nonpartisan think tank doing research on immigrants and immigrant communities around the United States. Our main work focuses on trying to understand who immigrants are, where they come from and how they fare in the overall economy. 

Juan Carlos: So your organization recently published a paper on the contributions of immigrants to Oregon’s economy. And you write that immigrants are a big and important part of the economy. Could you flesh that out for us? How big a role do immigrants play in Oregon’s economy? 

Anthony: So while immigrants make up about 10% of all Oregonians, they actually account for 13% of the total state GDP. To put an exact number on it, out of Oregon’s $256 billion economy, immigrants are responsible for $33 billion of that. They also account for 13% of the working age population from 16 to 64 and 13% of the overall labor force. 

Juan Carlos: So the outsized role that immigrants play in Oregon’s economy, bigger than their actual numbers, is due to what exactly? 

Anthony: There’s a lot of factors that go into that. Certainly, one of them is the fact that immigration is first and foremost an economic decision for most people. When you think about who immigrants are, they’re typically more likely to be of working age to begin with because they’ve usually moved to the U.S. or to a new country to find work and to support their families.

Another reason that immigrants have such an outsized contribution in the local economy is that immigrants in particular tend to arrive with many skills, even though a lot of times they get mislabeled as unskilled or low skilled workers. Lots of immigrants, especially in places like Oregon, are coming with really key skills and really key sets of job experience.

And in many cases, they’re actually coming with H1-B visas. They already have jobs by the time they arrive in the U.S. 

Juan Carlos: So this segue ways into my next question, which is that there’s a perception out there that immigrants mostly work in low wage industries, but your analysis shows that this is incorrect. What is the reality when it comes to the wages and the industries where immigrants can be found?

Anthony: So I’m glad you asked that. What we did is we wanted to really get a sense of people’s economic outcomes in Oregon’s economy. And one of the ways that we did that was to sort people into three categories based on their individual earnings called low wage, middle wage and upper wage. Anybody who’s in the middle wage category is anyone in Oregon who’s making $38,000 a year to $115,000 a year. If you’re anywhere in that range, we called you middle wage. Anybody making less than $38,000, we called lower wage. Anybody making more than $115,000 we called upper wage. 

And what we found is that about 50% of all immigrants in Oregon are in that middle wage category. And 17% are in the upper wage category. When we compare that to U.S. born people, it’s actually just a little bit more immigrants who are in that upper wage category. Only 16% of U.S. born workers and full time jobs are making more than $115,000 a year. 

The main difference, however, is that U.S. born people are much less likely to be in low wage work. So only 24% of U.S. born Oregonians are making less than $38,000 a year, compared to 33% of foreign born Oregonians. So if you’re an immigrant living in Oregon, roughly one in three are making less than $38,000 a year.

That is certainly a disproportionate amount. However, when we look nationally, 36% of immigrants fall into that low wage category. So that tells us that in Oregon, at least, immigrants are doing a little better off than immigrants at the national level. So it tells us that it’s a pretty good state to be an immigrant. And in particular, it also tells us that it’s a really good state to be an immigrant in a high wage job.

And there are lots of examples of the kind of work that immigrants are doing and all three of these levels. So in particular, some of the main jobs that we see at the upper wage level for immigrants are as architects and engineers. There are 7,000 immigrants in Oregon working somewhere in the architecture and engineering space, and they actually make up 34% of all workers in that space.

Immigrants also account for 26%, so more than one in four, software developers in Oregon. And what’s really, really important and we find this not just in Oregon but all over the United States, is the high share of doctors, and specifically physicians, who are immigrants. There are 8,000 physicians in Oregon who are immigrants, and they make up 20%. So one in five of all physicians and doctors in Oregon were born somewhere outside of the U.S. And that’s really important when we think about things like the COVID pandemic and we think about how we sort of take care of people in our community. And there’s a really good chance if you’re living in Oregon, you go to the doctor, there’s a one in five chance that your doctor was born somewhere outside of the United States. 

Juan Carlos: Speaking of the COVID pandemic, one of the lessons of that period is that a lot of the jobs that the government deems essential are in fact performed by immigrant workers. So you mentioned doctors, but we also know that farmworkers are deemed essential and many immigrant workers work in the agricultural sector, same as food processing, home health care workers and so on. What does that say about the importance of immigrants in our economy And just keeping society going? 

Anthony: Well, what’s really important about understanding where immigrants work and how immigrants work throughout the economy is that, first, immigrants go in the economy where everybody else in the economy is going. And so it’s very likely that immigrants are going to find work, especially when they have access to higher educational attainment, they’re going to find work in the same places we all look for work. That’s why there are so many working as doctors and as software developers. But they also tend to fill in those jobs that are a lot harder to fill, those low wage jobs that are very often difficult to get us born people to work in.

There are usually lots of immigrants working in those occupations, many of them, as you mentioned, are essential jobs. So to give you an example, immigrants make up 28% of all janitors and cleaners, but they also make up 42% of maids and housekeepers. They make up 37% of cooks, 61% of food preparation workers. So these are folks who really are doing a lot of the labor that we rely on every single day.

These are folks that are working as personal care aides, childcare workers. If you have somebody who comes to your house and cleans your house from time to time or someone who cares for an elderly or sick family member, there’s a really good chance that that individual is an immigrant. And these are really essential jobs to keeping our economy flowing.

And that was really important during the COVID pandemic, because in many cases, immigrants are sort of cut out, with a fine tooth comb or with a laser cutter, cut out of the social safety net. It’s really, really difficult for immigrants, especially in low wage jobs, where they’re more likely to be undocumented, it’s really difficult to get access to any sort of social safety net program in the United States.

And so when folks in those jobs lost their jobs because of the COVID pandemic, in many cases, they also did not have access to unemployment benefits or any sort of health care benefits when they lost their jobs. And that is really important. And it’s really concerning for us because we want to make sure that people can support themselves and support their families regardless of where they’re born and regardless of what jobs they do.

Juan Carlos: In addition to being excluded from certain safety net programs, what other challenges do immigrants face in our economy? 

Anthony: Immigrants face many challenges, especially when they’re working in low wage jobs, or if they’re working in jobs where they might be off the books. These are specifically maids, housekeepers, childcare workers, personal care aides. These are people who in many cases are at the whims of their employers. And so they often face a lot more, not only discrimination in the workplace, but for women in particular, they face sexual violence in the workplace. And this is also really important when we look at race and gender as variables here.

And when we think about economic outcomes, Latina women by far face the most economic barriers in our society, in the American economy, especially when they’re born outside the United States. To give you an idea: 56% of immigrant Latina women working in the United States working full time jobs are making less than $38,000 a year. That number is way, way too high.

That tells us that more than half, almost three in five, of women who are of Latino descent working in the United States are not making enough to cover their own expenses, their own costs of living, let alone if they have family or kids that they’re taking care of. Whether those families live here in the United States with them or back home where they immigrated from.

And this is where we start to really understand the key barriers to success that immigrants tend to face. Immigrant women, immigrant women of color face the highest barriers to that economic mobility that we so often associate with the American dream and with the immigrant experience. And a large part of that is because of the jobs where they tend to work.

Most often those jobs where they’re in are very often historically excluded occupations. That means that they are not included in the National Labor Relations Act that allows for things like benefits and worker protections and collective bargaining. When you’re working in those historically excluded occupations, you’re really at the mercy of your employer. And in many cases, you find people who fear speaking up when they experience discrimination or sexual violence in the workplace because they think that doing so is going to impact their immigration status or it’s going to put them at risk of deportation.

Juan Carlos: What would you say is the main takeaway that the public and policymakers should take from your report? 

I think the main takeaway is that we can help immigrants first and foremost by including them in any policy that we choose to push forward that’s going to help working people. Any policy that helps working class people is also going to help immigrants.

And in most cases, a policy that’s going to help immigrants is also going to help working class people regardless of where they were born. What’s important is that we do not actively exclude immigrants from those policies and that we work on focusing on the occupations and the industries where immigrants make up large shares of the workforce. And we try and understand how we can, in a systematic way, make life a little easier for everyone working in that job.

And we can do that through things like building strong wage standards for workers in domestic labor or platform-based workers, both of which industries are really dominated by immigrants in many states. But we can also focus on expanding social benefits so that immigrants, again, are included in the benefits that already apply to all Americans and choosing not to exclude immigrants.

That’s the main thing we have to actively push our lawmakers and our policy advocates to make sure that immigrants are included in the policy efforts that we’re already pushing and advocating for. 

Juan Carlos: Anthony, any final thoughts you want to share with us regarding the economic contributions of immigrants to Oregon’s economy? 

Anthony: Absolutely. I think what’s really important to bear in mind is that while immigrants are really in so many ways vital and central to our local economies and into our communities as a whole, that is not where the value of immigrants come from.

The value of immigrants is in their overall humanity. The fact that these are individual and families who come here to the United States because they’ve heard what we as Americans have always said, which is that this is the land of opportunity where you can come and build a better life for yourself and for others. And I think the best thing that we can do for immigrants is really just recognize that that is all they want.

They want the same thing that everybody else in the American economy wants, which is to provide for themselves and their families. 

Juan Carlos: Anthony Capote, thank you very much. 

Anthony: Thank you. It was wonderful to be here. 

Juan Carlos: That was Anthony Capote, the senior policy analyst with the Immigration Research Initiative, discussing the contributions of immigrants to Oregon’s economy. And now we turn our focus to Oregon’s labor movement.

Today, there’s a lot of evidence of a labor movement on the rise. There’s been high profile strikes and unionization drives all across the country and in Oregon. But what do the numbers say about all this labor activity? To explore that topic, I spoke with my colleague from the Oregon Center for Public Policy, Kathy Lara. Kathy is a policy analyst with the Center.

Kathy, there’s been a lot of focus on labor activity of late, a growing interest in strikes and efforts by workers to form unions. And you recently wrote a piece on this very topic. What do the numbers say in terms of labor activity here in Oregon? 

Kathy Lara: Yes. Well, across the country and in Oregon, we’ve been seeing an increase in labor activity and mobilizations by workers.

And we see that this is primarily driven by their motivations for better pay, reduced workload, other issues that they’re dealing with, like housing insecurity or a reduction in class size, for example, for teachers. So these kinds of issues have been driving this resurgence in labor activity.

And just to talk about some specific examples, in Oregon in 2023, in Oregon, we saw 23 strikes take place in the state. And that was a big jump from what we see the previous two years. In 2022, we saw ten strikes and in 2021 we saw nine strikes take place. 

We kind of see this momentum reflected in other ways. We’ve seen changes in the filings for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board. And so the National Labor Relations Board is just the federal agency that oversees and protects workers’ rights to organize.

So specifically, we saw that in 2023, workers filed 112 petitions for union recognition. And just before that, in 2022, we saw 117 petitions filed. So for the last two years, these figures were more than double what we’d been seeing in the years prior, foing back to 2010. I think the data shows and what we’ve seen is that there is definitely a surge in labor activity by workers.

Juan Carlos: How has this translated in terms of union membership? 

Kathy: So unfortunately, the data is not reliable enough at the state level to answer that question. But what we can do is look at national figures instead. Nationally, last year we did see an uptick in the number of workers belonging to unions, which did grow by about 115,000 new union workers.

And here’s the not so great news. The share of workers belonging to unions declined slightly. And so the reason for this is because the economy added jobs at a pretty good clip and the number of nonunion jobs grew more rapidly. 

Juan Carlos: What do you think the lesson is here? What’s the main takeaway? 

Kathy: I think the main takeaway is that there’s a lot of obstacles that workers are facing, even when the data shows that they are more active than ever.

And these are things that I think a lot of us already know. When workers try to organize, they experience a lot of anti-union behavior from their employers. They are subjected to coercive meetings. They’re told things that they might, you know, lose their jobs or fear their jobs may be closed. Or workers may be subject to other things, such as illegal firings because they support the union or support forming a union in the workplace.

And so not only do these things happen, but also when employers do violate labor laws, they face little to no penalty sometimes. In light of all of this, I think one of the most important things to take away is that policymakers need to step up and they need to help restore balance in the workplace so we protect workers’ fundamental right to organize.

Juan Carlos: What kind of steps should lawmakers take to safeguard workers, to protect this right to organize? 

Kathy: Well, the most important thing that has to happen is there needs to be changes at the federal level. One way that at the federal level that this can change is by Congress passing legislation similar to Protecting the Right to Organize Act, also known as a PRO Act.

And some of the protections that the PRO Act would do is hold employers more accountable by authorizing meaningful penalties, strengthening the support of workers who suffer retaliation. And lastly, it would prevent employers from interfering in union elections by banning employers’ capacity to hold captive audience meetings. 

I think at the state level, there’s a number of things that Oregon can do. One of these things is to extend unemployment insurance to striking workers. So right now, workers who go on strike aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance. But these are one of the things that we can change. Number one, not only in doing so do we give striking workers some sense of economic security when they do choose to go on strike. But second, we’ve seen studies that show that when striking workers have access to UI benefits, they’re more likely to take collective action. So if workers know that they’re going to be supported through a strike, then they’re more likely to then form and join unions in their workplaces. 

Second, Oregon can help expand bargaining rights to excluded workers from the National Labor Relations Act. Due to a racist exclusion, farmworkers and domestic workers today are excluded from basic labor organizing rights. So they don’t have the right to form or bargain like other workers do. So at the state level, we can help grant farmworkers, domestic workers and even gig workers as well, collective bargaining rights so they can form and join unions in their workplaces and bargain in good faith with their employers.

Third, Oregon can help establish wage boards. Wage boards are their public bodies that bring workers, industry leaders and the public together to set minimum wages and standards for a specific industry. And they would apply to all employers in an industry, regardless if they’re direct employers or if they’re subcontracted employers. And so in doing this, not only would we bring a level of stability to an industry because these standards would apply to, again, all employers, they also reduce the possibility of employer opposition to workers forming unions in the workplace, since a wage board would take wages out of the competition.

Just an example of a wage board we’ve seen doing this is Minnesota’s Nursing Home Workforce Standards Board, which was recently created in 2023. It recently voted on increasing the minimum wage for their nursing home workforce. So by 2027, nursing home workers on average will be receiving $27 as a minimum wage and be getting 11 days of guaranteed holiday pay.

And then lastly, what Oregon can do is implement or expand just cause employment. So right now, in general, unless you have a collective bargaining agreement in the workplace, workers can be fired for pretty much any reason. Just cause employment would mean that there’s a fair and transparent process for employers who want to terminate their employees.

And so I think in expanding just cause employment, not only, do you give workers a sense of economic security, but then employers would be less able to just arbitrarily fire workers, particularly if they want to take that action to discourage unionization efforts. And so eliminating this power imbalance will allow workers to feel more empowered and give them a better ability to take collective action in their workplace.

Juan Carlos: Kathy, any final thoughts you want to leave with us regarding the increased labor activity that we’ve been seeing and the barriers to unionizing that workers confront?

Kathy: Both the data and other examples that we’ve seen of workers coming together to organize, to go on strike, show us that workers still desire unionization. They want to be represented in the workplace, want to have a bigger voice in their working conditions.

There was a time in this country where unions created a very strong middle class. But, you know, unions for a long time have been under attack. And so our ability to have a pathway to the middle class has decreased, disappeared over decades now. So I think if we’re thinking about the kind of country we imagine, where we want every single person to have a good job, to have a good benefits, to have a say in the conditions to where they spent, most of their their life in, we need to make sure that workers have a say in that. Policymakers can make sure that workers’ fundamental right to organize and join a union is protected.

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Written by staff at the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

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