By Nora Quintanilla
New York City, Aug 5 (efe-epa).- Workers in the restaurant sector in New York, epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States, demanded Wednesday that the government extend the unemployment aid that expired Friday without a replacement and invited people to protest to defend their rights.
In the iconic Times Square, empty of tourists in the middle of summer, several dozen people gathered to expose their precarious situations having lost a weekly unemployment benefit of $600 while legislators debate a new stimulus package that could lower the figure to $200.
Of the 32 million unemployed in the US, the National Restaurant Association estimates that some 8 million are employees in the restaurant sector who have either been fired or are on leave without pay, an “over-representation” that could worsen in the coming months in the face of difficulties in small businesses, especially those of immigrants and ethnic minorities.
According to a recent survey by the Hospitality Alliance of New York, 83 percent of the city’s restaurants, bars, and nightlife venues were unable to pay their July rent, and the majority of owners did not offer to renegotiate, which threatens its “survival and future viability.”
“Although we are here to ask for the extension of the $600 for each unemployed worker, this is only the beginning. Unemployment is going to be a feature of life in this country in the times to come, and we want to organize ourselves as workers,” said Natalia Tylim, an activist with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) political body, which called the protest.
Tylim, a New Yorker of Argentinian origin, told EFE that she had been working for 10 years in a restaurant in the West Village when the pandemic arrived and she was left in “limbo” without pay. Now she is involved in a “project to organize restaurants” of the DSA to “think about what a worker’s solution in the industry will be and how can we assert a worker’s solution against the restructuring that is going to take place.”
According to the group, restaurant workers have “precarious unemployment because they have precarious jobs,” they are not generally organized in unions and do not enjoy health benefits, so the timid economic reopening threatened with interruption, although not yet in New York, does little to improve the situation.
“When restaurants were forced to close, this had a disproportionate impact” on workers, Tylim noted, as many of them largely rely on tips and “don’t technically have a reported income to say that they qualify for unemployment (benefits).”
“The restaurant industry isn’t just going to open like it was before, which means that there’s going to be a fight about what it will be like: how is the workplace going to be structured, what are jobs going to be like and what are wages going to be like? And so we want to use this time where we are all unemployed together to think about that, to think about what a workers’ solution in the industry will be and how we can assert a workers’ solution against the restructuring that’s going to take place,” said the activist.
Among those present was Estefanía Galvis, a Colombian who worked in the restaurant sector. While she was unemployed she fought for four months to obtain unemployment assistance, however she did not succeed due to bureaucracy and when she was finally about to receive it, she found a job in an immigrant rights organization.
“Even if people do everything necessary, the system puts obstacles (in their path), so we not only ask that they extend the unemployment payment but also that the system be accessible and (that it) works. This affects immigrants and the undocumented a lot. There are parents who do not have money. We are going to see a large increase in evictions,” said this activist, who also warned about the effects on mental health.
Another person who joined the protest was Keith James, who works in “one of the largest hotels in the city” and expressed his situation with anguish: “By the grace of God, we hope something good happens by January so we can go back to our jobs, because we need our jobs.”
The hotel where he works, and which he prefers not to name, has been especially impacted by the lack of tourists in the heart of Manhattan, where Broadway plays have been canceled until January, which has led the hospitality businesses to their closure or an operation of between 5 to 10 percent of its capacity.
The hour-long protest, which took place during a lunch break for some of the participants, later moved to the offices of Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader in the Senate, to demand that lawmakers reach an agreement as soon as possible “before their holidays” this Friday and cover the needs of the unemployed “regardless of their immigration status.” EFE-EPA