When Julián Hernández Sagahón fell seriously ill with COVID-19 symptoms in March 2020, he wasn’t allowed to take any sick leave from Mundo Supermarket in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he’d worked 12-hour shifts at least six days a week for 18 years. When the 45-year-old immigrant worker had a few hours off, his younger brother, Sebatián, took him to see a doctor. The doctor told Julián his lungs were inflamed and that he needed to rest, but he had no choice but to go back to his job.
“When the pandemic began, my brother was put in charge of the grocery store because he’d been there for many years, and the owner and manager didn’t want to return to work,” Sebatián Sagahón said. “I told [Julián] many times [that] as long as you’re good to work, as long as your boss needs you, they value you. But if you get sick or the company doesn’t need you anymore, they treat you like trash.”
Three days after his visit to the doctor, Julián collapsed at the cash register. He died at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn the same night.
“After my brother died, nobody cared,” Sagahón said. “I went to see the owner of the supermarket, asking him to help me with the hospital and burial expenses, but he didn’t give me any money. All of those expenses fell on me.”
The wages from Sagahón’s restaurant job weren’t enough, but with the help of friends and community, he was able to pay his brother’s burial costs. But the trauma of the loss stayed with him.
“I didn’t believe my brother was dead,” he said. “I waited for him to come home for months, waited to hear that it was all a lie, that he was still alive. Every night when I heard the door open, I would cry thinking it was him. When people die, their family is supposed to see their body. I never saw my brother again. I was given the clothes he wore to the hospital and his ashes to send back to our pueblo. It’s so painful that I never got to say goodbye to him or see him or pray for him.”
Throughout the pandemic, stories like Sagahón’s have become all too common. While it has been well-documented that immigrant workers have suffered disproportionate illness, death, and catastrophic economic losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, less noted is how immigrant workers have also been forced to suffer new layers of trauma and mental health conditions triggered by fear of the deadly virus, the loss of loved ones, the inability to grieve, and the stress of financial uncertainty and abusive work environments in the midst of inadequate public health and social services.
Particularly during the first few months of the pandemic, typical mourning rituals were disrupted since it was difficult to even find a funeral home that wasn’t at capacity. Morgues were also overflowing in places like New York City, forcing officials to place people’s dead loved ones in mobile freezers parked outdoors.
“We heard so many stories of people who saw their siblings and their parents for the last time,” said Nilbia Coyote, director of training and education at New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19 infection rates and deaths. In the midst of so much tragedy, NICE transitioned from being a community and workers’ center to becoming an emergency response center that also supported immigrants in accessing aid for burial costs and even helped them navigate the process of repatriating their loved ones’ remains to their motherlands.
“[We heard about] members of our community who went into the hospital and never came back, or people who died at home and the ambulance took days to come and get the body—family members that never had the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones,” Coyote said. “We truly didn’t have the psychological tools to understand all of this and to grieve a collective trauma of this magnitude.”
For many, the privilege of processing pain doesn’t exist due to mounting hospital and funeral bills, the bureaucracy found within these systems, and the pressure from employers to quickly return to work—if grieving workers are given any time off to begin with.
In the predominantly immigrant neighborhood in New York City where NICE is based, most residents hold low-income jobs that have been deemed essential before and during the pandemic. Altogether, NICE has registered a total of 200 families who have lost loved ones since last March, Coyote said. As deaths have mounted, so has the need for mental health services for immigrant community members trying to cope with the devastation.
Coyote lost a dear friend to COVID-19 and faced a period of depression as she witnessed up-close how her community of immigrant workers suffered severe inequities during the pandemic—as have other Black, brown, and Native communities.
“I think that’s why I got so involved in supporting our membership of immigrant workers at NICE,” Coyote said. “My friend was in the hospital for two months before he passed away. I’m still waiting for him to appear in my dreams because I want to talk to him.” Several of Coyote’s colleagues at NICE also lost loved ones during the pandemic. “Now imagine someone who lost a child, a sister, a parent—these families couldn’t see them anymore. It’s incredible how families will confide in you because there are no other people asking them these questions and treating them with compassion and respect.”
The mental health crisis among immigrant workers is caused by “a combination of fear, necessity, desperation,” said Sara Feldman, the workers’ rights director at NICE. “We saw so many families having to move every week, every month because they were getting kicked out of their homes—even though there was a moratorium on evictions. It’s really life or death. The thought of, ‘If I’m on the streets, I’m gonna get sick. If I go to work, I’m gonna get sick.’ In addition, they’re dealing with the trauma of possibly having lost family members or friends, and the trauma of feeling forced to work instead of having the option of staying home and protecting themselves.”
On any given day, as Coyote and her colleagues at NICE connected community members with mental health and other resources, they also searched for that relief themselves. While there are some options for immigrant community members, help is still scarce, especially when it comes to culturally sensitive resources for undocumented people who don’t speak English, Coyote said. To help fill the gap, NICE has also organized remote activities that center community organizing and support groups.
Sagahón is intimately familiar with the mental health pressures facing many immigrant workers during the pandemic: He navigated financial instability due to unemployment and lack of aid, compounding his depression in the wake of his brother’s death. But he’s started to work toward recovery, with financial and legal assistance from NICE and a focus on managing his depression.
“I started looking for a psychologist online,” he said. “There was this therapist that I saw on Facebook who said that the best medicine for you and your mind was to finally accept that your loved one has died. You are hurting yourself every day thinking he’ll come home. As time went on, I accepted that my brother was gone. I had to pick myself up because I have to take care of my mom, my dad, and my family. I’m also really happy because my wife is pregnant. This is why I’m fighting.”