Rosenfeld Santiago worked as a dishwasher at one of the hottest bistros in the city. The restaurant was buzzing every night, packed with guests chasing the glow from starred reviews and an award from the James Beard Foundation. The staff would eat twice a day there, once during family meal and again after service.
But since the pandemic-related shutdowns five months ago, Santiago hasn’t been to work, and these days you’re more likely to find him waiting in line for his next meal at a food distribution center in Corona, Queens.
“These past few months have been very difficult,” says Santiago, who previously made enough to send money home to Mexico to support his parents and brothers. “In terms of income, money? Nothing.”
Santiago is just one of thousands of service industry workers who have not gotten the call to return: Less than half of the city’s estimated 26,000 restaurants participate in the expanded outdoor dining program, and even those that do are seeing business languish at around 30 to 50 percent of normal volume. Nearly 60 percent of hospitality industry workers are without a job in New York, according to the latest unemployment figures from the state.
With savings that have long been depleted and little to no sources of income, these workers now rely on the patchwork array of services that provide relief from food insecurity, waiting in long lines every day at schools, food banks, pantries, and other distribution points, like Alianza Ecuatoriana Internacional, a social services center in Corona, Queens.
“Most of them used to work for restaurants, food services,” said Walter Sinche, the executive director of Alianza Ecuatoriana, as he walked down the growing line of over 200 people one recent afternoon, recognizing many regulars. “We have a few that are homeless. And I think that is going to increase.”
While 30 million jobless Americans across the country are trying to figure out their next move after last week’s expiration of the extra $600 weekly federal unemployment benefits that kept them afloat, millions of immigrant workers with documentation challenges have been ineligible for any benefits for the entire shutdown. Their eating and housing strategies portend what awaits the rest of the out-of-work population should Congress fail to renew the unemployment benefits soon.
In New York City, immigrant workers represent the majority of the staff working in kitchens — top NYC restaurants may be helmed by a head chef and perhaps a few deputies who get all the press attention, but they are run by immigrants that cook, clean, bus the dirty dishes, and run the food out to the tables.
“The restaurant industry in general, food in general if you take it back to farming and to meat processing, does not work without immigrants,” says Tom Colicchio, owner of Crafted Hospitality and a founding member of the Independent Restaurants Coalition, which is lobbying Congress for industry-specific relief.
These “essential worker” jobs held by immigrants mostly preclude social distancing or working from home. Corona, Queens, where a vast number of these workers live, was one of the neighborhoods most heavily impacted by COVID-19 early on: One clinic in the area recently reported that 68 percent of its patients had antibodies to the novel coronavirus.
The hundreds of immigrant workers waiting in line for a meal at Alianza Ecuatoriana will all tell you the same thing: There’s just not enough work to go around right now.
One such worker, Victor Hugo, spends his days riding a bike through Queens and northern Manhattan looking for work, but has thus far been turned away by every restaurant that he has stopped into.
The Korean restaurant in Flushing where Edgar Choco used to work has remained closed, so he has taken up day laborer construction work, where competition is so fierce that fights sometimes break out among the men waiting to be picked up by contractors.
Guadalupe Ortiz used to have 14 coworkers at the Turkish restaurant she worked at in Midtown. That staff is now four people, and she didn’t make the cut.
For all the people waiting in line to be able to eat, an even greater threat looms on the horizon: evictions. The community in Corona has thus far been spared from mass homelessness despite the high volume of unemployed workers. Landlords here are often fellow Latinos from the same country as the tenants, and tend to be more understanding given the current economic situation. Many workers say that the community behaves more like a family that protects its own, but there are limits.
“I owe five months’ rent,” says Humberto Iglesias, who worked as a cook and dishwasher at various restaurants in Manhattan. “My landlord is starting to lose his patience.”
Delvin Hernandez, who worked as a busboy at some of the city’s most upscale restaurants before the coronavirus-related shutdowns, says that he was kicked out by his landlord five weeks ago. Eviction moratoriums don’t apply around here: Hernandez and many of his compatriots in Corona are undocumented. There’s no legal recourse or government aid available even as these workers, the vast majority of whom have paid taxes their entire careers, hit rock bottom. Restaurant GoFundMe accounts intended to support undocumented workers for a short period of time have long since run out of money.
With his last $200 in his pocket and a backpack filled with his essential belongings, Hernandez begins each day by collecting a sandwich from a neighborhood social worker or one of the school meal hubs. He’ll stand outside Dunkin’ Donuts near the train station and use the free Wi-Fi to check for job opportunities. For dinner, he’ll bounce between the area’s bodegas, begging for a portion of rice and beans or, if he’s lucky, tamales.
But mostly, Hernandez will sit in the park drinking cheap vodka or wine until he passes out, convinced that there are few outs from his current situation. “The government hasn’t given us anything. Donald Trump? Nothing,” he says. “There’s no help for immigrants.”
Some of Corona’s residents didn’t bother waiting around to see things get that bad. Walter Sinche recalls one couple that he met in line several weeks ago waiting for a meal outside of Alianza Ecuatoriana. They had moved to the United States 22 years ago, and worked in restaurant kitchens until the pandemic wiped out their jobs.
With their remaining savings, they booked one-way tickets back to Ecuador.
“The American dream, for some of them, became a nightmare,” says Sinche. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”