The pandemic labor market through the eyes of immigrant restaurant workers in Philly

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Six months ago, a Latina cook in her 50s watched her male colleagues in the Old Town organize raises.

With labor shortages plaguing the restaurant industry, the men have threatened to quit and go to work in construction if their wages don’t improve, she said.

“Men, they become more rebellious,” she said in an interview in Spanish. The cook is from Mexico and WHYY has agreed not to publish her name due to her undocumented status and fear of losing her job.

The management gave increases to the men, but did not extend the salary increase to the women, which then prompted them to regroup.

“We said, ‘If you don’t raise [our wages], we will also leave, ”said the worker, who is a member of“ El comite de trabajador @ s inmigrantes ”, or the Committee of Immigrant Workers, which campaigns for better conditions. In the end, after the women put pressure on the management, the salary went up by a dollar, to $ 16 / hour.

The threat worked because the coronavirus pandemic shook the economy of the hospitality industry, with many Latino immigrant restaurant workers in Philadelphia leaving the industry after initial business closures. The lack of a social safety net in the undocumented immigrant community has pushed many people into other professions. At the same time, the increase in vacant positions in restaurants created new leverage in salary negotiations for some who remained.

Dionicio Jimenez, executive chef of El Rey in the city center, said that when government warrants shut down dining inside, some of his employees took on new directions.

“The former employees found other jobs… were doing different things: construction, landscaping, cleaning,” he said. As a result, when he tried to recall workers when the restrictions eased, many did not return. At first about 80% of the administrative staff did so, but among the administrative staff, “nobody came back,” he said.

The exodus of restaurant workers has grabbed the headlines, but the terms of these departures depend on the options available to employees. About 9% of leisure and hospitality workers nationwide are immigrants without a work permit, according to the Pew Research Center. Undocumented immigrant workers were not eligible for government assistance provided during the pandemic, and as a result, many Philadelphia residents depended on supporting their communities to survive.

This information adds new context to the staff shortage complaints now common in food service. At the start of the pandemic, Hispanic workers had the highest unemployment rate of all demographic groups, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Foreign-born workers also have a higher unemployment rate than their US-born peers at the same time. This trend has since reversed, with Hispanic workers now more likely to be employed than African Americans. Hispanic and Asian immigrants are now over likely to be employed than Hispanic and Asian people born in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.

But many have reassessed their career choices.

“There is no shortage of workers. It really has to do with the conditions that the restaurant industry really provides, ”said Natalia Nicastro, immigrant worker organizer at the Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health (SSHRC). Construction has more predictable schedules and pays better, and some people are unwilling to return to late nights and the hectic pace of the restaurant industry.

Their absence has changed the environment for those who remain.

Labor shortages have pushed up wages in some cases. When the Federal Paycheck Protection Program loans were distributed, El Rey increased dishwasher wages from $ 10 / hour to $ 15 / hour, and hourly wages from $ 12- $ 15 to $ 18. for line cooks.

Still, Jimenez said he struggles to keep people when other restaurants may charge even more. “Because everyone is desperate to have employees, they are offering bonuses,” he said. Sometimes workers get a better deal at another restaurant and leave. “We are robbing our own people,” Jimenez said.

The jobs that are filled have become more difficult without enough staff, say workers.

“If you work in the kitchen, sometimes you have to help the dishwasher… because of the lack of people,” said Carlos Rojas, who works as a sous-chef at Buddakan in Philadelphia. Due to understaffing, he said he sometimes had to work on his days off.

Eréndira Zamacona, another member of El trabajador @ s inmigrantes committee, said the restaurant industry must correct this culture of exploitation.

Before the pandemic, she worked as a preparatory cook in a Mexican restaurant. “They hired me as a preparatory cook, but I end up doing everything there,” she said in Spanish. “I end up doing the dishes. I end up preparing food… so it’s not just a job that I do. This work drain ended up pushing her out of industry and into domestic work. She now cleans for a living.

Zamacona also knows many people who have spent much of the pandemic unemployed due to job losses, fears of COVID or childcare needs. She said restaurant jobs have returned, but working conditions have not improved.

“But people take them. Why? Because they’ve been totally arrested for a long time… you have to take this job now, ”she said.

“We must find solutions”

Several factors contribute to this mix of opportunities and job stagnation.

Erica Groshen, senior economics adviser at Cornell University and former commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, points to the “monopsony” as one of the possible culprits.

The labor monopsony is a situation where employers are so powerful that they can keep wages low (and avoid squeezing their profit margins) because there are enough people out of work with no choice but to take the job. low paid.

“This is where you get this dichotomy between the employers who say, ‘I can’t find enough workers,’ and the workers… are not doing as well as you might think,” she said.

Another problem is that more and more jobs require a high school or college diploma, making it more difficult for workers without those diplomas to enter and learn on the job, according to Groshen.

“The unemployment rate is still very high [for people without a high school degree] and has been more or less flat over the past four or five months, ”she said. Throughout the summer, unemployment among those without a high school diploma hovered around 10%, consistently two to three percentage points higher than the unemployment of those with a high school diploma, according to BLS data.

Some business owners are also considering a change from their side.

Juan Carlos Romero, owner of Philly Tacos, is one of a group of 25 Mexican business owners, primarily restaurants but also grocery stores and lounges, based in South Philly. They meet weekly on Zoom to discuss common challenges, and also how they can work together to find ways to help the local Latino community.

“The idea is to improve the working conditions of our staff,” Romero said in Spanish, for example by setting “fair” base salaries for the same positions, an initiative that is still ongoing. “[As] small businesses, we must find solutions to bad wages, bad conditions … [and] excessive working hours, ”he continued.

Romero said everyone on his small staff made at least $ 15 an hour.

Even so, when Spruce Street Harbor Park offered his company the opportunity to open a branch at the waterfront facility this summer, it couldn’t hire enough staff to manage the new location and its Point Breeze restaurant at the same time.

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