Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Immigrant workers keep restaurants going, whether they be hip bistros in hot neighborhoods or fast-food chains. Many of these line cooks, bussers, and servers are undocumented or waiting for the resolution of their immigration cases. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, D.C. area restaurants have closed or reduced their operations to take-out and delivery only and many of these workers were laid off. Without access to unemployment benefits or other formal support, this group is especially vulnerable.

Although they worked at different types of restaurants, these D.C. area residents encounter similar challenges. Many of them lack information and immediate income, and fear that a lack of work will jeopardize their futures. Some also worry about not being able to assist relatives in their home countries. Four of these workers discussed their situations with City Paper in Spanish. We are only identifying them by first name to protect their privacy.

Sylvia, who recently worked full time at a sit-down, casual restaurant in D.C., says everything changed overnight. “I came to the United States running away from the violence and the gangs of my home country of El Salvador,” she says. When the pandemic forced local restaurants to close or radically change their service style, Sylvia says, “I got a call from the manager telling me not to return.” Her employer didn’t offer any information or resources. “They simply told me they no longer needed me.”

The lack of communication is a common denominator. Maria, a fast-food worker, gradually lost hours before being laid off. “My hours went from full time to a few days a week,” she says. “Then, they cut 10 people at my restaurant. The management told us they would let us know when there’s work again, but they don’t know when. I just want to work.” She also says her job did not give her any information about to get assistance while unemployed.

The lack of regular income, compounded by the lack of government assistance, creates stress. Ana, a food-service worker, says she’s very nervous about her future. “I have a young son, and his father abandoned us,” she says. “It’s just the two of us. I don’t know of many resources available to help, but I am also afraid of going out as I don’t have any masks, and I can’t leave my son alone at home.”

Ana, who lives in Petworth, did encounter some generosity. “My landlord is a religious person and is very empathetic to what we’re going through and is giving us a break with the rent,” she says.

Some, like Sylvia, are not as lucky when it comes to housing. Without a job, she moved in with her sister in Maryland, where she now shares a residence with her seven-year-old son and her sister’s family. Her whole family is coping with a sudden lack of employment. “I feel I can get through this with the help of my family,” Sylvia says.

Others feel that they have paid their dues but cannot get help. “I’ve lived in this country for 20 years and worked very hard to establish myself,” saysFernando, who works at an upscale casual restaurant in D.C. “I am afraid the good credit I have built over the years will now default because I do not have a paycheck coming in.” His girlfriend is employed at a hospital where her main job function is cleaning.

Family and social networks are critical in many immigrant communities. Many people come to the U.S. to provide for their families both here and in their home countries. “I’m here alone, but I support my two sons back at El Salvador,” Maria says. “It’s not only my life here that is affected, but those back at home [too].” Ana also says she sends money home. “I usually send $500 home every month, but that is no longer happening.”

Some local restaurants understand the struggles of their undocumented employees and are looking for ways to help them. “We realize that some of our employees do not have access to government help,” a D.C. restaurant owner who requested anonymity says. “We are checking in with them every day to ensure they’re healthy and [we’re] raising money from loyal customers to help them out during this time. It’s the least we can do.”

Fernando says his restaurant kept him informed. “They explained to us the situation in detail and provided a letter to apply for unemployment,” he explains. “However, I cannot apply for unemployment, so it doesn’t help me much.”

The initial draft of the “COVID-19 Response Supplemental Emergency Amendment Act of 2020,” which the D.C. Council is scheduled to discuss Tuesday, included the possibility of providing financial assistance to workers who are not currently eligible for unemployment under local or federal law. If enacted, it would have allowed undocumented workers to participate in a program similar to standard unemployment insurance. 

But on Sunday evening, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson confirmed to City Paper that the language was removed from the latest draft of the bill. “In developing a consensus document with the mayor it was agreed that we did not have the $33 million necessary to pay for it,” Mendelson said in a statement. “But we also agreed that we need to look for alternative strategies to help undocumented residents who are hurting from the public health emergency.”

At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, pushed hard for previously excluded workers to obtain aid. She issued the following statement Monday in response to the updated draft of the legislation that leaves them out:

“I am disappointed that legislative language giving Mayor [Muriel] Bowser authority to give cash assistance to DC residents restricted from unemployment insurance was removed from the latest draft of the April 7 emergency bill. These workers have contributed a lot to our city, particularly in the hospitality industry which has been hardest hit in the public health emergency; they are our neighbors; and many are parents of children who sit next to ours in our public schools. We need to do whatever we can to keep these households economically stable during this challenging time so they have an equal shot at recovery.”

She points to what is taking place in Maryland as an example of what’s possible. “Our neighbors in Montgomery County just put in place a similar $5 million grant program, which is allocating $3.5 million through its own government and $1.5 million through community organizations to those residents restricted from unemployment insurance.”

“At this point, I am holding on to my family and my faith,” Fernando says. “I hope that this experience that we are going through together will make our society overall more sympathetic to our situation.”

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