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From serving to being served, plight of US restaurant workers amid pandemic

Mar 31, 2020

Washington.- The doors have closed, but the hospitality has not ceased. Chefs, restaurant owners and workers have quickly come to the rescue of their colleagues now unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic in Washington DC and other US cities.

With the health crisis worsening in this country, every afternoon dozens of plates of food are prepared in a capital restaurant for people who have lost their jobs or whose work schedule – and thus their earnings – have been reduced making them unable to make ends meet.

One by one, people who before were tasked with serving or preparing dishes for others, present their ID and proof that they have recent worked in the hostelry sector and receive one of the 200-300 take-out meals prepared each evening. They are also being offered bags containing basic-needs items.

The idea, dubbed the Restaurant Workers Relief Program and operating in 14 US cities, is being backed by chef Edward Lee through his Lee Initiative Foundation with the support of Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogi, the founders of the KNEAD Hospitality + Design restaurant chain.

So far, Javier, a 28-year-old Colombian cook who has lived in Washington DC for three years, has not had to resort to the program to be able to eat since – despite having lost one of the two jobs he held at a hotel that is now closed due to the crisis – he still has a part-time job in a restaurant and is still receiving all his benefits.

For the moment, though, he’s living on his savings, which he calculates can last him a month-and-a-half. «Many of us Hispanics save. So, you have a certain amount of savings for a certain time,» he told EFE.

But for Javier, there’s the ongoing fear that restaurants could soon close or that he might get sick and his medical insurance would not cover the costs. And for immigrants, especially undocumented workers, access to the rights and official benefits is not always in reach.

Javier, who was not employed directly by the hotel but rather by an intermediary company, has health insurance through the restaurant and not the hotel, where they also didn’t offer him any kind of unemployment benefits.

«When they closed the hotel, … that was it. There’s no work, there’s no unemployment insurance and the company really isn’t obligated to give us any support,» he said.

Finding herself in a similar situation is Vivian Cortez, a Bolivian architect and mother who came to this country in 2005 and since then has been working in the catering sector.

For now, she was «saved by the bell,» she told EFE, since the concessionaire company of the cafeteria for which she works told her less than a month ago that she’d been officially hired as an administrative assistant.

But now her main concern is continuing to receive her paycheck after this month. «They’re going to cover you until the end of the month, but beyond that we don’t know,» her manager told her.

As the mother of two girls – ages 11 and 13 – and in the middle of a divorce, Vivian does have medical insurance, but she said that some of her friends don’t have it and only go to the doctor in an emergency.

According to figures compiled by The Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), which heads the «Save local restaurants!» campaign seeking to marshal people to have their voices heard in Congress, restaurants employ 11 million people directly or indirectly in the US, representing 4 percent of the GDP.

The dishwashers, waiters and kitchen helpers are mainly immigrants and in Washington DC most of them are Latin Americans.

Mexican chef Christian Irabien Gamboa is supporting another initiative in Washington – Friends and Family Meal – created in mid-March by two workers in the sector, Morgan Stana and Mike Alves, to deliver bags with fresh food for people to cook at home.

The bags are packed by waiters and baristas who have transformed themselves into committed volunteers, while the chefs share recipes with the public as one of the other features of the project, which is associated with local farms.

Irabien Gamboa came to the US 11 years ago from Chihuahua, Mexico, and said that immigrants working in restaurants and hotels – many of them now Asian, African and European – are afraid to ask for help during the Covid-19 crisis because they lack papers and, under the Donald Trump administration, might be deported or arrested.

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