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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Essential Immigrant Workers, Inequality and COVID-19

This participatory action research (PAR) project will document and address threats to health and safety that essential immigrant workers face during the COVID-19 pandemic, both in the home and in the workplace. The pandemic is widely understood to have exacerbated economic inequality and to have disproportionately affected low-wage workers who cannot work remotely. Job losses due to the pandemic is also leading to housing insecurity for this same group of workers.

The research team, in partnership with the Milwaukee-based community organization Voces de la Frontera, will take a two-pronged approach to these problems, examining both occupational health and safety issues and housing insecurity by training research assistants and members of the communities most directly affected to document problems and generate knowledge that can contribute to solutions.

In the workplace, project participants will document, and seek to correct violations of safety standards in industries deemed essential, with a focus on agriculture, food service and food processing. The research effort will include workshops in Spanish on occupational health and safety related to COVD-19, worker’s rights aimed at vulnerable essential workers. It will also create a repository of data about safety violations, support for public campaigns around violations and a series of published reports outlining the scope of the problem and highlighting successful efforts at mitigation.

In the area of housing, the team will collaborate with Voces de la Frontera and their membership to build knowledge around housing rights through workshops with tenant-law experts and develop mobilization around shared housing challenges through a survey of housing conditions.


Armando Ibarra, associate professor with the School for Workers


Carolina Sarmiento, assistant professor of civil society and community studies

Revel Sims, assistant professor of planning and landscape architecture