Coronavirus in NYC: Undocumented Restaurant Workers Are the Forgotten Victims of the Shutdown – Eater NY

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Umberto Barrero* is just 25 years old, but he’s already had a star-studded career in hospitality. He says that he started out washing dishes for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, before moving on to cook in kitchens run by Tom Colicchio and Stephen Starr. He now works in one of the hottest restaurants in New York — at least, he used to.

Two weeks ago, most restaurants in the city were shut down as part of an industry-wide effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, and hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs overnight. But unlike many of his colleagues, Barrero had no unemployment checks to look forward to. The $2 trillion relief bill that will pay out $1,200 to most Americans won’t apply to him either. Barrero is an undocumented worker, one of tens of thousands estimated to be laboring in the back of house of New York’s restaurant industry. A former line cook who came to the United States from El Salvador in 2011, Barrero now has no income and has begun spending down his savings.

“I don’t have many other options,” said Barrero, whose wife and two children relied on his income as an essential part of their budget.

An undocumented worker and his wife shop for groceries

Barrero and his wife shop for groceries

Undocumented workers are a staple in New York City restaurants, so much so that there’s an entire underground economy of fixers that produce paperwork, identification cards, and fake social security numbers that will pass muster for restaurant hiring. According to operators speaking on the condition of anonymity, everybody knows exactly who these people are when they see the paperwork.

But with over 26,000 restaurants in the city and a shortage of workers willing to labor for up to 12 hours a day as a line cook or a dishwasher, restaurants will hire them anyway as long as the identification appears legit and the business has plausible deniability if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) comes knocking. Some estimate that more than 20 percent of the country’s cooks are undocumented.

Government help is nearly impossible to get, even though undocumented workers in the United States pay $11.74 billion in taxes each year, equivalent to 8 percent of their incomes, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. (By comparison, the top 1 percent pays an effective 5.4 percent.) Because undocumented workers are, at least on paper, employees with social security numbers, restaurants still take taxes, unemployment, and social security out of every paycheck. But because the documentation submitted to employers is fake, when it comes time to reap the benefits of those payments, these workers are invisible to the government and get nothing.

The $2 trillion stimulus bill explicitly leaves out undocumented people, and beyond that, it also leaves out immigrants who would otherwise be able to get benefits, such as people who are filing taxes with someone who doesn’t have a social security number, according to Rodrigo Camarena, director of the Immigration Advocates Network, the largest network of nonprofit legal advocates committed to defending immigrants.

“This administration has made it exceedingly difficult for all immigrants to access government services and benefits, including immigrants with status,” Camarena said.

Barrero watches Trump speak about COVID-19 on television

Barrero watches Trump speak about COVID-19 on television

Undocumented immigrant workers — despite their critical role in the industry — also have few industry advocates or lobbyists to help them in vulnerable times like this. Few people who Eater spoke to were willing to talk on the record about undocumented workers, at the risk of inviting an ICE raid in the middle of service; restaurateurs in particular were reluctant to speak. Organizations that specifically support undocumented workers are rare, and advocates have mostly relied on collecting money via GoFundMe.

Even the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which lobbies the government for more relief for restaurants and its workers and is backed by celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio and Marcus Samuelsson, did not respond when contacted for comment about how they could help the undocumented workers that undoubtedly keep their kitchens running. There are few resources available for these “invisible” people, who often are already financially vulnerable.

“I don’t think that restaurants could exist without undocumented workers,” said Nate Adler, who owns Gertie in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But Adler, whose restaurant has a fairly small team that doesn’t have “undocs,” as undocumented immigrants are commonly referred to, acknowledged that “it’s a tricky topic” to even talk about.

One of the few restaurateurs who has been outspoken about undocumented workers is Trigg Brown, who runs Win Son and Win Son Bakery in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Although he says that he has no undocumented workers at his restaurants, Brown’s Instagram account has been promoting a fundraiser for “undocumented workers in the industry.” It’s raised more than $30,000, the equivalent of one week’s salary for everyone who’s been earmarked for relief. The language on the beneficiaries of the fundraiser is intentionally vague to protect workers.

“You have to OJ Simpson it a little,” said Brown, referring to Simpson’s book If I Did It. “As an industry, there is an obligation for us to take care of all of our employees. Just because some people are dealing with documentation challenges doesn’t mean we should screw them.”

An undocumented worker has dinner with his daughter and wife

Umberto Barrero eats sandwiches for dinner with his family

Another restaurateur, who would only speak on background, said that one of the main reasons for doing takeout was to be able to keep the undocumented dishwashers and prep cooks employed. An undocumented operator who was interviewed by New York magazine is staying open for the same reason.

Most restaurants staying open for delivery or takeout, though, are only doing a fraction of their normal volume, with a few notable exceptions. For an industry that operates on razor-thin margins, staying open may not be financially viable, to say nothing about health concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Undocumented workers rarely have access to health insurance — Barrero doesn’t — and some restaurants are closing with worries about exposing more workers to the virus.

There are a small number of options for undocumented workers to get help besides donation funds like Brown’s. Restaurants like Gertie and Olmsted in Brooklyn are using funds from the Lee Initiative, a restaurant-worker nonprofit, to give away meals to unemployed restaurant workers, four days a week, and they are not asking for immigration status. There are also a limited number of foundations, churches, and nonprofits establishing funds to provide support for undocumented families. “These funds are critical for immigrant families who are already afraid to access public assistance and currently find themselves unemployed and desperate for immediate assistance,” said Camarena.

These programs may help undocumented workers tread water, but the tidal wave is coming. April 1 is just around the corner, and with it comes bills and rent that will be due. Restaurants and hundreds of thousands of laid off New Yorkers will face their first major make-or-break moment. For most of these undocumented workers who have been out of work for over two weeks and don’t have the prospect of government aid, desperation is beginning to set in.

“We can survive for one month with the cash that we’ve saved,” said Barrero, who lives in a small Queens apartment with six other people, including his two children and wife.

Barrero theorized that he could work in construction as a day laborer as a last resort, but that was before New York banned all nonessential construction work. “There is no government assistance. Something has to happen,” he said. “How will I pay my rent? How will I pay my bills?”

Although members of Congress are already talking about another COVID-19 relief bill, senators have taken a recess until April 20. Legislation is likely a month away, and there are no guarantees there will be any relief that will positively impact undocumented workers. By then, a lot of their savings will have already run out, and May’s rent and bills will be due. Without their former front-of-house coworkers and restaurant owners to fight for them, many may end up on the street.

“The tunnel for undocumented families is very long and dark,” said Camarena.

*Name has been modified to protect his identity

Source: Thanks