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Health

Maine's Immigrant Workers Weather Ups And Downs Of COVID Test Industry

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Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
A nearly-full parking lot at Abbott Laboratories' Westbrook facility this week. The company is hiring again to meet rising demand for COVID-19 testing.

The coronavirus pandemic can be described as a series of waves, as cases, testing availability, and vaccine demand rise and fall, and rise again.

In southern Maine, hundreds of immigrant workers making COVID-19 test kits have found themselves at the mercy of these national and international trends, for better and for worse.

In the early months of the pandemic, Abbott Laboratories hired hundreds of workers to make rapid COVID-19 test kits at its facilities in Scarborough and Westbrook. Many of the new hires were immigrants from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other countries.

But as demand for testing fell earlier this summer, many of those same workers found themselves out of a job.

Recently, though, Abbott has begun hiring again, as testing demand has skyrocketed due to the latest surge in cases.

"Abbott started calling them actually to come back,” said Claude Rwaganje, founder and executive director of ProsperityME, a nonprofit that assisted over 350 immigrants who’d been laid off from Abbott earlier in the summer.

“Some have resisted [returning to Abbott] because they said ‘No, the way we departed, we cannot come back. We need to be stable in our lives,’” Rwaganje added.

Still, Rwaganje estimated that the majority of his clients have accepted offers to return to the company, despite the volatility of the industry.

Rwaganje said some of the individuals he’s spoken with say even a short-term position is a helpful stopgap as they look for a job with more stability.

In a written statement, an Abbott spokesperson said, “Our workforce in Maine continues to deliver millions of rapid tests at a time when our country needs testing, particularly rapid testing, to manage this next phase of the pandemic."

The spokesperson added that Abbott is again hiring full-time and temporary positions in Maine as “CDC guidance has called for a re-prioritization of testing.”