Undocumented Restaurant Workers Should Be Prioritized for the Vaccine

"We should be the first ones in line rather than a politician who doesn't even know how to wash dishes."

Restaurant worker washing dishes in a commercial kitchen
Photo: Adobe Stock

If you work at a restaurant and your only choice is to risk contracting COVID-19 or lose your job, you should be prioritized for the vaccine, regardless of citizenship status. The labor of BIPOC, immigrants, and undocumented restaurant workers is the backbone of the restaurant industry—without them, nothing works. But they are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and economic crisis.

The undocumented, in particular, are a vulnerable yet essential class that should be actively included in nationwide vaccine phases, rollout plans, and testing, without fear of deportation or legal repercussions, and not just in sanctuary cities within states like New York, California, or Oregon.

Given that NYC grocery workers are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine as part of Phase 1b, then so imminently should all restaurant workers, regardless of citizenship status. It's still unclear when restaurant workers will get the vaccine, which is determined by the state. According to some sources, they are in the second to last phase of the vaccine rollout in New York City. The term "essential," it seems, is highly subjective, given restaurant workers face many of the same dangerous working conditions as grocery store employees.

Undocumented restaurant workers are even more at risk, and just as essential. According to a representative from the New York City Mayor's Office, the COVID-19 vaccine in NYC "is and will continue to be safe and accessible to all, regardless of immigration status." However, there are still many social barriers in place that block undocumented people from access to COVID-19 testing and the vaccine. Even if governments purport to provide the vaccine to all regardless of status, there must be measures in place to encourage voluntary participation from the undocumented community.

Despite poorly communicated campaigns declaring that immigration status will not be asked during COVID-19 testing or vaccination in states like New York, there are also proof of eligibility requirements that deter undocumented people for fear of legal repercussions.

The pandemic has put undocumented restaurant workers in a highly precarious situation. Many cannot work safely or remotely for fear of exposing their work status, in which their employer would have to legally terminate them. And some employers may use an undocumented person's status as the reason for firing them rather than scaling up for hazard pay or giving time off to get the vaccine. Undocumented restaurant workers may not realize they're being discriminated against because this kind of treatment is the norm: Employers can retaliate and report an undocumented person to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Despite the employer's own illegal actions (retaliation), ICE can still deport that person because they have unlawfully used false papers to gain employment.

What's more, the undocumented still can't collect unemployment or other federal assistance, and they are often hesitant to ask employers for hazard pay, or file claims when their rights have been violated. Undocumented workers generally have the same wage and hour rights as other workers, but employers are required to fire undocumented workers once they learn of their lack of work authorization.

Nelson Santos, an undocumented line cook at a Brooklyn-based ghost kitchen whose name has been changed to protect his identity, knows he can't work remotely and stay safe from the coronavirus. "Unlike office work, our job sites require permits, certifications, and health inspections to execute," he said.

Trying to be helpful, many friends have suggested Santos offer virtual cooking classes or demos. But not every cook has the opportunity to do classes. You have to have some sort of brand or following.

"By sheer virtue of being undocumented, I want the opposite thing: I don't want to be known," said Santos. A remote job outside the food or restaurant industry isn't an option for him, either. Remote jobs require paperwork and he doesn't have any.

It is estimated that undocumented workers comprise 10 percent of all restaurant employees in the U.S., and as many as 40 percent in urban areas such as Los Angeles and New York. Some estimate that more than 20 percent of the country's cooks are undocumented.

As a whole, undocumented immigrants pay billions in taxes and a higher effective tax rate average than the top one percent of taxpayers (8 percent versus 5.4 percent). They pay into a tax system from which they will never benefit.

Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts recently said in an announcement that citizens and legal residents will get vaccine priority over undocumented immigrants, as part of plans to deliver coronavirus vaccines to Nebraska meatpacking plants.

"You're supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants," said the Republican governor. "So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program."

The reality is, the inclusion of undocumented people in vaccine rollout plans is crucial for stopping the spread of the coronavirus. "This is important for the sake of public health because the undocumented have faced systematic discrimination and exclusion from relief," said New York State Senator Julia Salazar, a Democrat of the 18th Senate District in Brooklyn (with no relation to the author of this piece). "Undocumented workers do not have the privilege of staying home, so they are at a higher risk of contracting, spreading, and dying from the virus. The virus doesn't care about your immigration status. Anyone who advocates for vaccine discrimination based on status indicates to me that they don't believe in principles of public health or aren't taking the pandemic seriously."

She added, "Anyone who is required to be physically present at their workplace in this pandemic should have access to the vaccine."

Yajaira Saavedra, co-owner of the undocumented family-run restaurant La Morada in the Bronx, shares that there are many customers in her community, one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, who fear leaving their homes due to health issues, or are unable to cook because gas lines are damaged. They depend upon restaurant and delivery workers, like those at La Morada, to eat.

"The amount of people we feed through the food chain impacts more folks than a politician," she said. "Our work is much needed. We should be the first ones in line rather than a politician who doesn't even know how to wash dishes."

New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, whose district includes Westchester and the Bronx, believes that the vaccine rollout should prioritize restaurant and delivery workers, in part because they interact with people all over the city. Further down the line, the only way to safely reopen indoor dining is if "we make sure the labor force is inoculated."

"When you think about the family makeup of groups like the undocumented, especially in the Bronx and others in lower-income areas, we aren't talking about just a two or three person household but generations of families living under one roof," said Biaggi. "There are usually elderly family members, who we know are the most vulnerable. So when you talk about food workers' health, it is their entire family that must also be considered."

Another significant barrier to consider that stands between the undocumented community and vaccination is "the fear we give each other," noted Santos.

While Santos says he would feel safer at work if he got the vaccine, he also hears other undocumented workers spread rumors. "Oh no, you shouldn't go, they have ICE outside the door,'" he recalls.

"I completely understand and validate why folks fear getting tested, especially when deportation hasn't stopped. Even in New Jersey, many folks have been detained and are held at the Elizabeth Detention Center," Saavedra said.

There have also been stories of clinics that have taken advantage of people without status, says Saavedra, including by charging them for tests. "So there is the choice between a COVID-19 test charge and paying for food for that week," she said.

Although information about coronavirus testing and the vaccine is available in Spanish and languages other than English, says Santos, there is still apprehension over interacting with a government entity.

"There is still fear whenever we go to any government facility, that they will hear the accent in our voice and identify us as undocumented," he said. "We fear that when we go online or to a government website that they are 'watching' what we're doing. That's why we choose to get information from friends and family members—and that is how even more fear and misinformation spreads."

He continued, "Even if you swear up and down that we are safe from being detained, what good is someone's word you don't know? And the fear is already there: We've been afraid for a long time. You say now that it's a pandemic 'we are in this together,' so now you are on our side?"

It is also hard to get over years of mistreatment and hiding. "How can I suddenly trust a government that has already tried to get rid of us through other means?"

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