NYC street vendors protest exorbitant fines as city reopens

New Yorkers relied on street vendors during the pandemic, but as the city reopens, those essential workers are once again being fined.


On Thursday, street vendors, organizers and elected officials marched down Fordham Road in the Bronx to demand a moratorium on the thousands of dollars in fines street vendors have received for operating without a permit or license.

Pictured above: Street vendors have long faced prohibitive laws governing where they can vend, and enforcement seems to have ramped up as the city reopens.

This article was originally published by Documented, a nonprofit news organization that covers New York’s immigrants and the policies that affect their lives. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for their newsletter.

The march, attended by 60 street vendors from the Bronx, took place on the same street that Lucio, a street vendor who sells tacos, was fined $2,050 a few weeks ago. 

The movement to protect the rights of street vendors is not a new one. Street vendors have long been victim to a set of arbitrary laws dictating where they can and cannot vend, and have dealt with a city-mandated cap on the number of permits issued to vend legally. 

“The web of street vending rules and regulations is intentionally complicated. Often enforcement agents themselves don’t know the full code. In order to check street vending compliance, you literally need to have a tape measure on you — the difference between a fine and compliance can come down to inches,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, Deputy Director of The Street Vendor Project (SVP).

The rules and regulations around street vending can vary block to block, making it nearly impossible for the predominantly immigrant and non-English speaking street vendor demographic to fully understand whether they are in violation of a decades-old rule. 

Most street vendors operate in the informal cash economy — largely because they can’t access the limited number of permits — and are often undocumented. But despite being recognized as essential workers, undocumented vendors were excluded from any form of COVID relief.

Years of campaigning have led to the passage of legislation that transferred regulation of street vending from the New York Police Department to other city agencies. The work of city officials and organizers, such as the member-led Street Vendor Project, also led to an increase in the number of city-allocated vending permits. But despite those legislative changes, street vendors are reporting an uptick in fines and enforcement in the past few weeks, coinciding with the city’s reopening. 

Most street vendors operate in the informal cash economy — largely because they can’t access the limited number of permits — and are often undocumented. But despite being recognized as essential workers, undocumented vendors were excluded from any form of COVID relief. Attendees of Thursday’s march were keen to point out the sad irony that these workers who New Yorkers relied on during the pandemic are now facing high fines as soon as the city reopens. 

Lucio was victim to that recent crackdown. On June 22 he was fined after operating as a street vendor for more than a year. He took two weeks off from vending after receiving the fine, but is now working nearly double the number of days he did previously to earn what he needs to pay it. 

Lucio began street vending during the pandemic after he lost his job, and did not see enforcement until he was working for more than a year.

Lucio began street vending during the pandemic after he lost his job, and did not see enforcement until he was working for more than a year.

Francely Flores

“The antiquated laws with an arbitrary cap on the number of permits and licenses available to street vendors has been a problem for decades. We have street vendors who are doing an essential service and an industry that grew during the pandemic. And rather than opening up the industry, the city fines vendors instead,” New York Assemblymember Kenny Burgos said in an SVP press release. “That is not how our government should work. Vendors deserve to work with dignity and respect.”

Burgos and Jose Rivera, both Democrats from the Bronx, were in attendance, as was Deputy Public Advocate Xamayla Rose and State Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D). Biaggi represents the 34th district in the Bronx and co-sponsored the bill that provides relief to workers excluded from federal funding.

“We didn’t pass legislation to create the Excluded Workers Fund so that workers have to spend their long awaited relief funds on fines to the city,” Biaggi said.

“That is not how our government should work. Vendors deserve to work with dignity and respect.”

The intensification of enforcement of street vendor regulations coincides not only with the reopening of the city, but also comes at a time when New York City is considering making outdoor restaurants permanent through a program from which street vendors are excluded.

“Vendors support the open dining program, but it’s an equity issue, as vendors are policed for selling food in open space while restaurants are encouraged to expand,” The Street Vendor Project’s Kauffman-Guiterrez said of the city’s openness to changing laws to accommodate outdoor restaurants while excluding street vendors. She also criticized the city for maintaining caps on vending permits that leave approximately 10,000 street vendors without access to the permits needed to vend. 

Regardless of their immigration status or ability to obtain a vending permit and license, vendors contribute as estimated $71.2 million in local, state and federal taxes

Olivia Heffernan is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. Her work focuses on labor organizing, immigration policy, prison abolition as well as the intersection of all three.