shutdown diaries

I’m an Undocumented Restaurateur — Who’s Going to Help Me?

“If I ask for money, they’re going to question me.”

“If this goes on too long, how am I going to survive?” Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images
“If this goes on too long, how am I going to survive?” Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus has hit everyone in the restaurant industry hard, but no one more than the many, many undocumented workers who cook, serve, wash dishes, and run restaurants. Already living in the shadows and dealing with a hostile government, they now find themselves without work and no safety net to catch them. (It’s worth noting that some restaurants have started funds for undocumented workers.) Like everyone else, they suffered the overnight layoffs after the restaurant shutdown, but unlike their co-workers they don’t have the recourse of applying for unemployment and won’t benefit from the stimulus package passed in the Senate. Grub Street spoke an undocumented New Yorker — whose identity we have kept anonymous — who runs two restaurants in the outer boroughs, about his life since the restaurant shutdown. 

Even though I run my restaurants, my legal status is, well, I’m “illegal” in this country. I have people who work for me who are in the same situation. First of all, we were really scared to begin with, before this happened, with the administration and its deportations. We think because we live in New York, you know, that kind of gives us security. A little bit, sure. But now with this coronavirus thing, we are more afraid than ever of how we’re going to survive, because we’re not going to be able to apply for unemployment or get any local help.

I’d say my staff at both restaurants are half documented, half undocumented. It’s the dishwashers and prep guys who are undocumented. That’s one of the reasons that, as an undocumented business owner, I want to keep my business running. Because at least I can give them jobs, pay them something. Not 100 percent of their full salary, but half. I’m trying to keep everybody, especially in the one where I have more business. I give them one day, two days a week, so they have something. Everybody is being understanding, but that’s the only thing I can think of to do.

Since this happened, I’ve been looking to see if I can get help to pay my bills, even in the restaurant. I still pay the same rent: $4,000 a month at my first restaurant, $3,000 at my second restaurant. At both places, I pay $2,000 a month to Con-Edison and $300 for cable. I have my W-2 form, because I pay taxes. I’ve been paying taxes for 15, 20 years using my tax ID number. I’ve owned a business for the last 12 years. Last year, I paid $15,000 in corporate taxes, my sales tax was between $12,000 and $15,000 every quarter.

I pay so much money to the government, to the city, to the state, but now that I need help for my business and my personal life, are they going to help me out? No, they’re not, because I’m undocumented. Because I don’t have papers. They don’t question where the money for taxes comes from, but if I ask for money, they’re going to question me. “Where’s your social security number?” This is part of being undocumented, and I have to live with it.

Luckily I don’t need help right now, but I’m thinking ahead. If this goes on too long, how am I going to survive? As a business owner, I can. But as an individual, how am I going to pay my bills if I don’t make enough money?

One of my biggest fears is, where do I go if I get sick? Who is there to call, as an undocumented immigrant? What if the hospitals are overflowing? I was thinking this morning, Who can I go to? What am I going to do? That scares me. I’m keeping up with the news, I’m trying to do whatever they say. I’m trying to stay as happy as I can, but another one of the scary things on my mind is if someone who works for me gets sick. What am I going to tell them to do? Where am I going to tell them to get help? If they ask me for help, what am I going to tell them? Because it’s really hard right now to get tested, only if you’re really, really sick. It’s bad for everybody, but it’s worse for us. It’s scary to ask for help.

Of course I worry about the people who work for me, too. I have already told them that we’re going to take it day by day, week by week, and to try to save their money. I’m telling them, you guys, whenever you’re not working, you don’t have to go outside. Don’t go hang out in the streets. Follow the instructions, stay inside. Because if one of them comes in sick, we’re all fucked. Sorry for my language, but we’re all in danger. I already told them whoever is not feeling well, don’t come to work. Please, stay home. We’re safer that way. I haven’t seen anybody sick but if I do, I’ll send them home. I can’t have them in the restaurant. I’m thinking about this every day.

If the restaurants have to close, I have enough savings for maybe three weeks. But what about after that? I’m very easy, I can survive on pasta, rice, and beans. I can survive for a month without spending any money. But I do not want that to happen.

It doesn’t make me angry that I don’t get any help. Right now I’m healthy, so I can work. If I can keep the restaurants open, I can eat. But it worries me if I can work or not, if other people can work or not, if I have to close my restaurant. I’m very worried about them closing the restaurants, because other people depend on them. It’s not just me, but the delivery people, the cooks, the dishwashers. They all still have to pay their rent and bills. Look, I don’t mind speaking up. Eventually people are going to have to notice that everybody who works in the industry, regardless of their status, are all suffering because they’re all out of their jobs. We’re all humans. We all live in the same city.

I’m an Undocumented Restaurateur — Who’s Going to Help Me?