Essential Workers: Immigrant Retail Workers in the Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD Metro Areas

Immigrant workers in the Retail industry represent large shares of the workers who keep grocery stores, gas stations, and pharmacies open during the pandemic, helping all Americans stock up on food and supplies they need. In the Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD metro areas, there are approximately 261,700 workers in the essential Retail industry.[1] Immigrants constitute 25 percent of the workforce in this industry (approximately 65,000).  It is important to note that industries are the types of businesses a firm is involved in and occupations are the tasks or functions performed by individual workers within a business. Workers within an industry can work in any occupation. Within the essential Retail industry, the top five occupations with the highest total counts of immigrant workers are: cashiers (approximately 13,800), first-line supervisors (10,000), retail salespersons (7,200), stockers and fillers (3,300), and pharmacists (2,400).

However, these workers are also facing a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19, due to the nature of their work where they must be in close contact with customers and colleagues at their workplace. Twenty percent of all immigrant workers in the Retail industry do not have health insurance coverage compared to 8 percent of native-born workers. Furthermore, for some of these workers who are undocumented or not naturalized citizens, access to health care and medical treatment might be difficult. Specifically, 33 percent of foreign born who are not naturalized citizens and work in the essential Retail industry in the DC and Baltimore metro areas, do not have health insurance. This is could be due, in part, to ineligibility for public coverage because of their immigration status.  

This analysis will focus on key socio-demographic information about immigrant workers in the Retail industry and specifically on immigrant cashiers and immigrant first-line supervisors who make up 40 percent of all foreign-born workers in the Retail industry.

Country of Origin, Race and Ethnicity, and Gender Distribution

El Salvador is the top country of origin for immigrants in the Retail industry. Eleven percent of foreign-born workers are from El Salvador, and no other Latin American countries fall in the top 5 countries of birth. When looking at the top two occupations, Ethiopia is the top country of origin for immigrant cashiers (12 percent) and Korea is the top country of birth for immigrant first-line supervisors (15 percent).

In terms of race, 35 percent of immigrant workers in the Retail industry are Asian and 26 percent are Black. When looking at the top two occupations, cashiers are most likely to be Asian (39 percent) or Black (34 percent) while first-line supervisors are more likely to be Asian (48 percent or White (27 percent). Thirty-four percent of immigrant cashiers are Black while only 15 percent of immigrant first-line supervisors are Black.  

With respect to ethnicity, only one-quarter (26 percent) of immigrant workers in the Retail industry to identify as Hispanic (who can be of any race). Only 20 percent of immigrant cashiers and 19 percent of immigrant first-line supervisors identify as Hispanic, which is consistent with their countries of origin.

There is no difference in the gender distribution of foreign- and native-born workers in the Retail industry as a whole. Fifty-eight percent of both native-born and foreign-born workers are male and 42 percent female. When looking at the top two occupations within the industry, however, female cashiers outnumber male cashiers whether they are native- or foreign-born, while the majority of first-line supervisors are male.

Year of Immigration, Citizenship Status, and English Proficiency

Large shares of foreign-born workers in the Retail industry have lived in the United States for a long time. More than half (59 percent) of immigrant workers in the Retail industry arrived in the United States prior to 2009, while only approximately 16 percent of them arrived since 2010. Immigrant first-line supervisors in the Retail sector have been in the United States the longest; specifically, 36 percent of immigrant first-line supervisors arrived in the United States before 2000 compared to 31 percent immigrant cashiers. Immigrant cashiers are more likely to have arrived in the U.S. after 2010 (27 percent) compared to first-line supervisors (8 percent).

Fifty-five percent of immigrant workers in the Retail industry are naturalized U.S. citizens, which is consistent with how long they have been in the United States. With respect to the top two occupations, immigrant cashiers are much less likely to be naturalized citizens compared to immigrant first-line supervisors. One of the reasons for this difference might be the fact that immigrant cashiers have been in the United States for less time than first-line supervisors.

Sixty percent of immigrant workers in the Retail industry are proficient in English (speak English well or very well). Immigrant first-line supervisors are more likely to be proficient in English (63 percent) compared to immigrant cashiers (51 percent). This is consistent with the fact that immigrants who are proficient in English are more likely to be promoted to supervisor.    

Personal Income

Despite being essential workers, the vast majority of native-born and foreign-born workers in the Retail industry earn less than $40,000 per year. Sixty-nine percent of immigrant workers in the Retail industry earn less than $40,000 per year compared to sixty-eight percent of their native-born counterparts. Alarmingly, 9 out of 10 foreign-born and native-born cashiers earn less than $40,000 per year. Overall first-line supervisors earn more than cashiers, but immigrant first-line supervisors earn slightly less compared to native-born first-line supervisors. Specifically, 53 percent of immigrant first-line supervisors earn more than $40,000 per year compared to 58 percent of native-born first-line supervisors. 

[1]The IIR defines the following the essential retail industry as: Automobile dealers, other motor vehicle dealers, automotive parts, accessories, and  tire stores, building material and supplies dealers, hardware stores, supermarkets and other grocery (except convenience) stores, convenience stores, specialty food stores, beer, wine, and liquor stores , pharmacies and drug stores, health and personal care, except drug, stores, gasoline stations,  electronic shopping and mail-order houses, vending machine operators, fuel dealers, other direct selling establishments.