The restaurant crisis is hitting undocumented workers particularly hard

Because they can’t access unemployment benefits, 10 percent of the restaurant workforce lacks an essential safety net during the pandemic.

Over three million people applied for unemployment insurance last week, ending a run of historically low numbers and signaling the official start of the Covid-19 era of job losses. The National Restaurant Association predicts that as many as seven million could lose their jobs in the next three months, in that sector alone.

But about 10 percent of that workforce has no such recourse, according to the Pew Research Center: They are undocumented restaurant workers who, lacking citizenship, cannot ask for help.

“Undocumented workers are the elephant in the room,” said Benjamin Miller, one half of the activist couple behind South Philly Barbacoa, a critically acclaimed Mexican restaurant. His wife and partner, Cristina Martinez, is an undocumented immigrant, and the couple has discussed her struggles most recently on the TV shows “Chef’s Table” and “Ugly Delicious.”

“They are in the toughest spot in the whole economy because they’re an invisible part of it.”

“People don’t want to talk about them, but they’re part of our daily routine in most restaurants,” said Miller. “They are in the toughest spot in the whole economy because they’re an invisible part of it.”

He and Martinez have no financial resources to help employees, because they’re struggling themselves. They used to have a staff of 16 that served up thousands of orders on the weekends because of fast turnover and a lot of to-go orders. Now it’s down to the couple and Martinez’ nephew. “Last week, we sold about 30 meals, but this week so far it’s been 1 or 2,” he said, referring to weekday vegan meals. The couple still sell barbacoa on the weekend – hundreds of orders, during Philadelphia’s shelter-in-place mandate — with the same skeleton staff.

“We’re cooking a lot less, and don’t have money to hand out. We offered free food to our staff,” including employees who had been fired, “and pay-what-you-want to the community, but people are not taking us up on it; we haven’t seen too many staff come around. We haven’t had much contact with employees. I think they’re trying to take care of their families at home.”

Restaurant worker advocacy groups have added the creation of relief funds to their agendas, even as they push for long-term changes in protections for undocumented workers.

The couple is unusually frank. Some in the restaurant industry practice their own version of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” either by paying cash and not asking about immigration status, or by not staring too closely at fake or borrowed documents. The law makes it hard to enforce actions against smaller, independent restaurants who are not required to use the E-Verify program to verify employees’ citizenship, according to Stephen Lee, a University of California, Irvine, law school professor who has written about immigration and the food industry. “On the employer’s side, the standard is, ‘Did they knowingly hire someone who is undocumented?’” said Lee. “If a driver’s license bears a passing resemblance to the employee, the employer would have plausibility down the road.”

Ironically, this group of workers appeals to some employers because it lacks protections. “If you are vulnerable,” said John deBary, founder and board president of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, a New York-based advocacy group, “you are less likely to ask for a raise in the future, or seek restitution, or draw attention to an employer who is not compliant with the law.”

Restaurant worker advocacy groups have added the creation of relief funds to their agendas, even as they push for long-term changes in protections for undocumented workers. Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF) has partnered with Southern Smoke, a Houston-based non-profit founded by Chef Chris Shepherd, and so far raised over $100,000. Half of the fund will go to individual restaurant workers, who must complete an application—but citizenship is not a requirement to receive aid.

Undocumented workers cannot receive food assistance, either, which compounds the problems they face.

Restaurant Opportunities Center United’s fund requires proof of past and current employment, and will prioritize those with medical emergencies and families with children—but again, citizenship is not among the requirements.

Both organizations have already received thousands of applications.

But advocates stress the need for deep structural change, even as they scramble to help jobless undocumented workers handle short-term needs. “This is a big gap in our safety net,” said Christopher Ho, a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work who represents undocumented workers. “With so many undocumented workers generally, some support is necessary, just as it is for authorized workers.” Undocumented workers cannot receive food assistance, either, which compounds the problems they face.

Higher labor costs mean higher menu prices, given restaurants’ slim profit margins, which could mean fewer customers.

ROC-LA is part of a Los Angeles coalition collaborating on a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, advocating an array of protections, including rent freezes, eviction protections, no interruption of essential services and utilities, and more paid sick time. “There will be a stimulus package for most American citizens and residents,” said the chapter’s lead organizer, Manual Villanueva, “but undocumented immigrant workers won’t qualify for these funds. Their situation is more precarious.”

In the meantime, the owners of one bar consultancy group have taken matters into their own hands. Othón Nolasco, Aaron Melendrez, and Damian Diaz, of Va’La Hospitality, pooled their own money, bought as much food as they could at restaurant supply stores, and assembled relief kits with enough food to feed a family of four for a week. They asked colleagues to connect them with undocumented kitchen workers who had lost their jobs, and delivered staples that the three men had grown up eating: eggs, milk, rice, beans, potatoes, onions, oranges, chorizo, and corn tortillas. They estimate they have enough money for six more weeks of supplies, and have created No Us Without You to keep the project going.

And while some advocates say that the traditional restaurant model has to change—to incorporate more benefits and better wages for all employees, no matter what their status or position on the job—they admit that the strong alternative option has yet to be created. Higher labor costs mean higher menu prices, given restaurants’ slim profit margins, which could mean fewer customers.

RWCF’s deBary hopes not; he hopes that when restaurants re-open customers will regard them with a new respect that will translate into a willingness to pay a bit more to subsidize employee rights. “Restaurant work requires a great deal of skill, hard work and expertise,” he said. “I hope people will start to realize, now that they can’t go to restaurants, just how valuable that work really is.”

Mackie Jimbo is a food writer based in Los Angeles. She has also written about food and culture for The Rafu Shimpo, The Atlantic, and Salon.