Tag: Essential Workers

JHISN Newsletter 10/16/2021

Dear friends,

May this Fall weekend find you in good health and spirits. 

JHISN continues to learn and find inspiration from the resilience, diversity, and creativity of local immigrant communities. We hope that by sharing what we learn, this newsletter plays a small role in strengthening solidarity with, and among, immigrants.

In this week’s newsletter, we report on a new stage in the struggle of New York taxi drivers to secure debt relief and justice. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has been demonstrating in front of City Hall around the clock for a month.

Our second story details the ongoing challenges facing residents of flooded basement apartments in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Many immigrants are confronted by extreme housing insecurity and serious health risks.

1. Taxi Workers Battle De Blasio Sellout

The struggle for debt relief by New York’s immigrant yellow cab drivers has entered a dramatic new stage. For almost a month, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance has held a continuous, round-the-clock demonstration outside City Hall. NYTWA leader Bhairavi Desai has declared, “We are not leaving the streets until justice is served.”

In our May 15 newsletter, we described how city agencies ripped off thousands of owner-drivers. First, they knowingly created an unsustainable bubble in taxi medallion prices and encouraged predatory loans, leaving drivers drowning in debt when the bubble burst. Then the city let tens of thousands of unregulated, no-medallion Uber and Lyft cars drive off with their fares. The pandemic delivered a final blow. Amid a wave of forced medallion foreclosures, nine drivers died by suicide.

Finding himself under mounting political pressure to correct this ongoing injustice, Mayor De Blasio continues to turn his back on the comprehensive, cost-effective plan for relief put forward by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance—a plan widely supported by local progressive politicians. Instead, he’s made a backroom deal with bankers, hedge fund owners, and unelected bureaucrats at the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission—the same body that enabled the crisis to begin with. The resulting “TLC Taxi Medallion Owner Relief Program” includes some debt relief. But it falls far short of what the drivers are calling for, is structured to serve the lenders, and would cost the city more than the drivers’ plan. It’s being rolled out in a rush, before its own rules are even finalized, to try to stifle criticism.

The average debt of individual medallion owners is $550,000. The TLC plan proposes to give tens of millions to the banks in return for writing down a portion of this debt. As they are well aware, this would still leave unsustainable loan balances of hundreds of thousands of dollars for most owner-drivers. The city has declared that it hopes to get many driver payments down to “only” $1,600 a month. According to the NYTWA, that would keep drivers’ net income well below the minimum wage. More bankruptcies would be inevitable.

The drivers’ plan calls for restructuring all driver loans down to no more than $145,000, with monthly payments at or below $800. If there is a defaulted loan, the city would take over the medallion, and resell it. It would then pay any remaining balance owed to the mortgage holder. Most of the cost of the NYTWA plan would be borne by predatory lenders, not the city. Cost estimates of the taxi drivers’ plan, verified by the city comptroller, are around $3 million a year, compared to the $65 million short-term costs of the De Blasio plan. The NYTWA plan also includes provisions to help older drivers to retire, as well as to give drivers who have lost their medallions through foreclosure a chance to regain them.

NYTWA cab drivers, almost all immigrant workers, are fighting for a real debt relief solution, refusing to be manipulated or diverted by the mayor. They’re out in front of City Hall all day and all night, rain or shine—picketing, chanting, giving interviews, and lighting candles at memorials for their deceased fellow drivers.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  • Join the NYTWA 24/7 protest at City Hall (Broadway & Murray)—stop by, take pictures & tweet at @NYCMayor and tag @nytwa.
  • Donate to support NYTWA organizing, and sign NYTWA’s online petition
  • Call Mayor De Blasio and tell him that we need real relief for drivers. Click here for a phone number and script. 

2. Living and Dying Underground

They’re often immigrants, they’re often people of mixed-status families. They are the essential workers. They are the lowest wage earners … The most vulnerable New Yorkers live in basement apartments.Annetta Seecharran (executive director, CHHAYA)

The news headlines have faded, but fallout from the torrential rains brought to NYC by Hurricane Ida on September 1 continues to accumulate. While the shadow economy of underground basement apartments in Queens has been invisible to many of us, the devastating effect of Ida’s flooding on basement residents is impossible to ignore. At least 11 people in Queens died during the unprecedented storm, drowned in basement dwellings, trapped in rising floodwaters. Now, uncounted numbers of immigrants, many of them undocumented, find themselves without their belongings, facing potential homelessness and health threats from mold and fungus, as the effects of the storm slowly unfold.

An estimated 100,000-200,000 New Yorkers live in unregulated basement dwellings. Local community groups like Chhaya have fought for years to legalize and bring up to code the vast network of underground rental units in Brooklyn and Queens. But while that struggle for safe, affordable basement housing continues, many low-income people, including tens of thousands of essential workers, don’t have any good options. They are forced—literally—to move underground to survive economically and maintain a roof over their heads. On September 1, that survival strategy turned fatal for some, while thousands more now endure the slow disaster of post-flood life. 

Oscar Gomez and his family are Queens residents whose basement home, belongings, and cash savings were largely destroyed in the flooding and its aftermath. “Swarms of fruit flies, first drawn by the mold growing on the basement walls, have now migrated to the floor above.” More than a month after the disaster, as the family continues to search for an affordable rental, the psychic trauma also lingers: “‘The fear is there, the worry, the uncertainty,’ Gomez said. ‘As soon as it starts raining, you can’t sleep’” (gothamist, 10/13/21).

Excluded from federal storm relief, undocumented New Yorkers hit by the storm learned in late September that they could apply for aid through a $27 million fund set up by the state and the city. In the first week of October, the City Council passed a bill requiring City Hall to create a comprehensive plan addressing the growing threats of climate change. The legislation highlights the vulnerabilities of working-class neighborhoods—like those in Brooklyn and Queens most damaged by Hurricane Ida—and not just the Financial District and coastal Manhattan. 

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  • For undocumented New Yorkers excluded from FEMA assistance, check out local resources here. Contact Make the Road NY/Jackson Heights for direct assistance, or call the NYS hotline at 1-800-566-7636. Application deadline for NYS disaster relief for undocumented households is November 26. 
  • Both homeowners and tenants can access FEMA assistance and other flood resources on Chhaya’s website here

In solidarity and with collective care,

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network (JHISN)

Follow @JHSolidarity on Facebook and Twitter and share this newsletter with friends, families, neighbors, networks, and colleagues so they can subscribe and receive news from JHISN. 

 

JHISN Newsletter 06/26/2021

Dear friends,

With you, we welcome the arrival of summer and its promise of warmth, and green shade, and shared gatherings that one year ago seemed dreadfully out of reach. Food will be at the center of so many of our renewed gatherings this summer, and this week’s newsletter takes a deeper look at the intersection of food politics and immigrant justice. From farmworkers to restaurant workers to street vendors, immigrant labor is a huge force in the harvesting and production of our food. We look at one essential sector of that labor: the tens of thousands of food delivery workers in New York City.

Delivering Justice: Immigrant Workers Fight Back

The bitter truth is that many food delivery workers can work 12 hours a day in the cold or rain for multiple food service apps and still not make enough to feed their own families.   —Los Deliveristas Unidos

Restaurant delivery workers helped keep New York alive during the worst days of the pandemic. They are celebrated as “heroes,” and as “essential.” Yet every time we accept a food delivery at our front door, we are interacting with one of the most exploited workforces in the city–almost all immigrants, and almost all people of color

For years, delivery workers have fought for justice against their employers and a callous city government, determined to improve unacceptable pay and working conditions. Now these skirmishes are turning into an outright battle, as delivery workers gain allies and move to a new level of unity and organization.

Restaurant delivery in the U.S. is a massive industry, worth tens of billions of dollars. And New York City is its epicenter. Just a few years ago, food delivery in New York was arranged mainly by individual restaurants, usually paying undocumented immigrants “under the table.” In parts of the city, this notoriously harsh model continues. Many delivery people work up to 16 hours a day, for a few dollars an hour with no overtime.

However, the advent of delivery apps like UberEats, Seamless/Grubhub, and DoorDash, has rapidly transformed the industry. The app services hire people as “independent contractors”; workers must now supply social security numbers, and are usually given basic English language tests. 

When Covid-19 closed down much of the city, unemployment and demand for food delivery both skyrocketed–and so did “gig” delivery work. Before the pandemic, New York had an estimated 50,000 app delivery workers. In just one year, ending in March, UberEats alone added 36,000 more “couriers” locally. Other app companies had similar exponential growth.

 The app services have upended the old business model in many ways. What hasn’t changed is the relentless oppression experienced by delivery workers, mainly immigrants from Latin America and Asia. App workers are poorly paid, with no benefits. They work long hours in bad weather. They buy their own e-bikes, which cost upwards of $2,000, and also pay for batteries, parking, and supplies. Their jobs are dangerous–not just because of traffic, but because delivery people are often assaulted and robbed. There’s a long history of tips and wages being stolen by restaurants and app companies. Delivery workers are subjected to racist disrespect: denied use of bathrooms (which especially impacts women workers), harassed by police, forced to use “poor doors,” insulted on the street. Referring to restaurants that won’t allow the use of their bathrooms, delivery worker Williams Sian comments, “We’re what’s driving their income right now, but…they treat us like insects.”

New York has seen a series of struggles by delivery workers and their allies to combat such abuses in recent years. When Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD started ticketing e-bike riders and confiscating thousands of bikes in 2017-18, grassroots groups like Make the Road and the Chinese Mutual Association helped pressure them to back off. Widespread public outrage about credit card tips being ripped off by restaurants and app services forced some of the big companies to improve their policies. (Grubhub, Seamless, UberEats, Postmates, Caviar, and DoorDash now promise that 100% of customer tips will go to the workers.)

When the pandemic hit, and thousands of laid-off restaurant workers started streaming into app delivery work, the Workers Justice Project, which was already meeting with delivery workers, decided to organize Los Deliveristas Unidos (LDU)–United Delivery Workers. Worker leaders soon emerged to run the LDU collective. Many of the founding members are indigenous Guatemalans or Mexicans. Their demands are simple:

  1. The right to use restaurant bathrooms
  2. A living wage and hazard pay
  3. Protections from e-bike robberies, wage theft, and health and safety hazards
  4. A place to eat, rest, and escape bad weather
  5. The right to organize

Last fall, deliveristas held a series of rallies and gained wide press coverage of their problems. In October, some 800 delivery workers demonstrated in lower Manhattan. In April, thousands of delivery e-bikes snarled traffic in a protest near City Hall, demanding justice from the mayor. On June 8, deliveristas rallied in support of a series of six reform bills introduced in the City Council by LDU allies. SEIU Local 32BJ, one of the largest unions in the city, has been actively supporting LDU, as has outgoing Comptroller Scott Stringer. The deliveristas movement, it appears, is emerging rapidly as a powerful force for immigrant worker justice in New York.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  • Tip well, and in cash, unless you’re sure that the full credit card tip will get to the delivery person. 
  • Donate to the Workers Justice Project/Los Deliveristas Unidos
  • Support the legislative package introduced in New York City Council to secure delivery worker protections and economic justice. 

In solidarity and with collective care,

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network (JHISN)

Follow @JHSolidarity on Facebook and Twitter and share this newsletter with friends, families, neighbors, networks, and colleagues so they can subscribe and receive news from JHISN. 

 

 

JHISN Newsletter 05/29/2021

Dear friends

For lots of us, this is a time for optimism, as Covid-19 slowly loosens its grip on our lives and our nightmares. But for too many of us, the nightmare continues–this is a time for worrying, for mourning, for reckoning. The coronavirus still surges in South Asia, Latin America and so many other places where immigrants have loved ones. Here in New York, vaccination rates are starting to taper off, and the familiar wound of inequality continues to characterize “the recovery.” In this week’s newsletter, we consider some of the factors that have held back vaccine use in our community, and efforts by activists to overcome those obstacles. We also spotlight a moving public art tribute to essential immigrant workers who were lost to the pandemic. For the communities they helped save, fully honoring their humanity is a test of our own.

  1. In Memoriam to Essential Workers
  2. Vaccine Access @ Jackson Heights 

1. Memorial Art in Covid Times

“We have to remember exactly who has been affected. We have to remember the communities who have lost people needlessly …. Those losses have to be mourned, they have to be acknowledged, and they have to be honored.”  —Mourners Walk video (P. Mendoza, 2020)

The violinist, in a black mask, plays at the intersection of 35th Avenue and 95th Street. White roses are laid on the steps of Elmhurst Hospital. In October 2020, artists, activists, and community members gather after dark in Jackson Heights to mark the beloved dead, and call attention to the unfathomable loss and unacknowledged grief borne by communities like ours ravaged by COVID-19.

Six months later in the windows of an empty storefront in Manhattan’s SoHo, a memorial exhibition appears honoring seven undocumented immigrants who have died during the pandemic. Each beloved loss is marked with a huge poster of their image, and a QR code linked to an oral history of their life. The street installation is designed by artist-activist Paola Mendoza, who also co-organized the Jackson Heights ‘Mourners Walk’ last October. She names the public art memorial Immigrants Are Essential:

“The word ‘essential’ has become an identity during this crisis, of the people and places that keep our society moving even when everything else is on pause, of those that are too often in the background but without whom we would fall apart … This is exactly who immigrants have always been and will continue to be in the United States: essential. May their stories inspire and ignite change…” Paolo Mendoza (April 2021)

To date, over 9,800 people in Queens have died of COVID, disproportionately working-class, of color, and undocumented. The intimate stories featured in Mendoza’s public art exhibition narrate just seven out of tens of thousands of undocumented lives ended by a virus that fatally tracks unequal structures of vulnerability and social suffering. 

On Memorial Day weekend, a nationalist holiday dedicated to remembering US military lives lost, how to also honor the undocumented dead? How to continue the collective task of memorializing our community’s incalculable loss from this pandemic?   

2. Pop-up sites and worker protections vital to getting people vaccinated

While COVID-19 vaccinations lag across the country and around the world, several efforts have been launched to get shots into the arms of Jackson Heights and neighboring communities.

“We’re in a pretty good news period around the effectiveness of pop-ups, and going where people are to make this more convenient,” S. Mitra Kalita said on a recent episode of WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show,” speaking about the mobile vaccination sites showing up in New York’s working class communities.

Kalita founded Epicenter NYC, a news site that aims to highlight pandemic-related developments in Central Queens, often focusing on issues that immigrant communities face here. In addition to delivering news, Epicenter NYC offers help booking vaccine appointments. The website has important resources for both people looking to get vaccinated and those who want to help others in their community do so.

Neighborhoods with high populations of Latinx residents continue to face high barriers to vaccination, often due to the inability of employees to miss work so they can get the shot and recover. Restaurant workers, in particular, have had difficulties getting time off for a vaccination, Kalita said.

She recently demanded that the city transform its signage at pop-up sites to make it immediately clear, in multiple languages, that the vaccines are free and, especially, that immigration status will not be questioned. According to New York protocols, any ID will be accepted to confirm an appointment–even an old phone bill. But this fact is not widely known in some communities.

Several organizations are working in our neighborhood to help people get vaccinated easily. They show up on street corners, under tents, and in front of stores. It’s quite possible you’ve seen them around.

If you or anyone you know has questions about how, when, or where to get vaccinated—and if you’re wondering whether it’s a good idea (many people are understandably concerned)—these organizations will likely be able to provide helpful information. Whether it’s online or on Roosevelt Avenue, there are many places to go to learn more. Here are just a few:

  • NYC Health + Hospitals provides vaccines at its sites and sponsors many of the local mobile vaccination clinics.
  • The city of New York has information on its website about where vaccinations are available.
  • Epicenter NYC has updates and vaccination appointment help.
  • City Council Member Francisco Moya has hosted virtual vaccine town halls in English and Spanish to help increase confidence in the vaccine.
  • Voces Latinas frequently hosts pop-up vaccine sites in partnership with other organizations near 83rd Street and Roosevelt Avenue.

Vaccination is critical to protect health and lives, for people to be able to gather with communities and family, for businesses to reopen safely, and to prevent the spread of new coronavirus variants. If more people in the United States and around the world can get vaccinated, we may be able to truly begin the long road to recovery from COVID-19.

In memoriam and in hope,

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network (JHISN)

Follow @JHSolidarity on Facebook and Twitter and share this newsletter with friends, families, neighbors, networks, and colleagues so they can subscribe and receive news from JHISN.