The Service Workers Who Kept New York Alive During its Worst Months of Covid – The New York Times

David Gonzalez and July 20, 2021
The city’s 2.5 million service workers were at the center of the pandemic as it ravaged New York. Some kept the city running, often at risk to their own lives. Others found themselves unemployed indefinitely in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
When New Yorkers stopped going to office buildings, parties and church, Shinji Fuse’s income plummeted at his Brooklyn dry cleaners. Most days, it was not even worth turning on the cleaning equipment.
In April, he closed for good.
Wendy Chen is a salon worker in Queens. She didn’t work for four months during the lockdown. Now back at work, she takes no chances during her two-bus commute, wearing two masks and spraying herself with disinfectant when she gets home.
Mohammad Hossen, a livery cab driver and advocate, spent half a year without work when New Yorkers stopped traveling. “Many drivers still aren’t feeling safe,” he said. “I had to go back to work because I could not survive.”
When New Yorkers stopped going to office buildings, parties and church, Shinji Fuse’s income plummeted at his Brooklyn dry cleaners. Most days, it was not even worth turning on the cleaning equipment.
In April, he closed for good.
Wendy Chen is a salon worker in Queens. She didn’t work for four months during the lockdown. Now back at work, she takes no chances during her two-bus commute, wearing two masks and spraying herself with disinfectant when she gets home.
Mohammad Hossen, a livery cab driver and advocate, spent half a year without work when New Yorkers stopped traveling. “Many drivers still aren’t feeling safe,” he said. “I had to go back to work because I could not survive on that.”
These 115 Workers Helped Keep New York Alive in Its Darkest Months
The city’s 2.5 million service workers were at the center of the pandemic as it ravaged New York. Some kept the city running, often at risk to their own lives. Others found themselves unemployed indefinitely in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
By Todd Heisler and David Gonzalez
July 20, 2021
Leer en español
A haircut, breakfast on the go, a yoga class: You can pretty much get one anytime — if not anywhere — in New York. If the city doesn’t sleep, it’s because hundreds of thousands of service workers who cater to any conceivable need don’t either. They feed and comfort, entertain and inspire.
As the Bob Dylan song goes: “You gotta serve somebody.”
But it’s a different story during a pandemic.
When thousands of offices, hotels, stores, gyms and restaurants went dark and silent, New York City’s estimated 2.5 million service workers suddenly faced the unimaginable prospect of no income and no idea when — or if — they could return to work. Initial hopes that the city would reopen in a few weeks gave way to a crushing realization that an unprecedented shutdown would bring unprecedented losses.
These 115 workers were among the more than 130 people that The New York Times photographed and interviewed. They kept the city going, from Riverdale to Staten Island and from Bensonhurst to Astoria. They were dog walkers and fitness trainers; cooks, cleaners and store clerks; and the army of people criss-crossing the city to deliver food and drink to those who spent the lockdown inside.
They were part of that delicate economic and social tapestry that connects us all.
According to the Independent Budget Office, New York City lost 889,000 jobs across all sectors in the first half of 2020 and only managed to regain 332,000 by year’s end. The hospitality and leisure sectors — dependent on packed bars, theaters, restaurants and hotels — took the biggest hit of all, losing a staggering 202,000 jobs.
The vaccine rollout and the lifting of restrictions have raised hopes for a rebound. A recent rise in cases has some experts concerned but they don’t expect the number of cases to reach levels seen during the first and second waves of the pandemic.
Some industries have bounced back — finance, tech and health — yet many more have a much tougher path forward; the leisure and hospitality industries are predicted to remain behind pre-pandemic levels until at least 2025.
Like many of her colleagues, Althea Finamore spent the early weeks of the pandemic confronting the fear, uncertainty and distress of her charges. She works with developmentally challenged adults at Staten Island’s Developmental Disabilities Service Office. She helps them get dressed, bathe and eat properly.
When the lockdown began last March, she worked back-to-back shifts over six days at the facility. She never went home, only napping when she could on a sofa.
“If they needed us, we were there night and day,” Ms. Finamore, 60, said. “The residents were upset because they thought we were the ones holding them hostage in the house. Our families were upset because they couldn’t see us. It was scary, we didn’t know what we were dealing with.”
Service workers do the kinds of anonymous jobs that make the city run smoothly. They perform vital tasks like caring for the incapacitated or keeping public spaces clean. Within days of quarantine measures being put in place, they were deemed essential, though often with no increase in pay.
They also include under-the-radar creative communities that produce cutting-edge music and the artists and performers that give the city its cultural cachet.
Delivering food for restaurants in the Financial District has long been Gustavo Ajche’s night gig. By day he works in construction, a trade he has plied since emigrating as a teenager from Guatemala’s western highlands in 2004. His wife works as a nanny for a family in Manhattan, a job that became a live-in position when her employer had her accompany them to their second home in North Carolina from March through September last year.
Mr. Ajche and his wife do not have a second house, but they do have a second extended family to support back home in Guatemala.
“We made the sacrifice,” he said. “It was complicated, because my family was separated here, while in Guatemala the situation with the virus was uncertain and things were getting bad.”
As the enormousness of the economic calamity sank in, some people were able to pivot quickly: Fitness trainers held online group classes; a Peruvian restaurant opened at the height of the pandemic with a business model centered on takeout.
Ellen Christi — a jazz singer whose day job had been leading a team of servers at impeccably catered events — “stayed in bed for three weeks” when work vanished overnight, then invested in upgraded audio and computer equipment to begin recording and giving voice lessons from home.
But others, especially those deemed essential, had neither the luxury nor the choice of working from home, if they even had work at all.
Ten years after starting as a busboy, Rusvelt Crespo now waits on customers at Roberto’s, a beloved Italian restaurant in the Belmont section of the Bronx. Some of his relatives had worked there for years, so rather than go to college, after Mr. Crespo graduated from high school, he went to Roberto’s.
When the shutdown began last March, he thought they would only be closed for a few weeks. Weeks turned into months. He and his parents, whom he was living with, dipped into their savings to survive until Roberto’s reopened. Deliveries weren’t an option, since the restaurant’s regular clientele is mostly from outside the Bronx.
Those regulars – some of whom have been going there for 30 years – helped too, sending Mr. Crespo texts and offering cash or food while he was out of work. Since the restaurant reopened in September, their tips have been generous.
“They know it’s been hard, so when they come, they take care of us,” he said. “They respect us. They don’t see us as waiters, they know we have families, and we work hard in this industry. It’s a beautiful thing.”
In Brooklyn, a dry cleaner spent months with hardly any customers, his machines and boiler idle since no one was dressing up for work or weddings.
At a Staten Island group home for developmentally disabled adults, staff members put in as many as eight consecutive shifts, exhausting themselves as they helped their charges and assuaged their anxieties, napping when they could on couches.
Often, the bickering between the governor and the mayor, as well as uncertainty about the virus’s transmission, left many people confused and on edge, said Maurice Robinson, who works at the group home. “It was like you were in a boxing match, blindfolded,” he said. “You didn’t know who you were fighting and where it was coming from.”
While the city’s reopening has revived neighborhoods and venues, it has not lifted up everyone. James Parrott, an economist at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, said that service workers in the city have only regained 40 percent of the jobs that were lost.
A survey conducted between December 2020 and February 2021 of 725 households in Astoria, Queens — chosen as an average neighborhood with a mix of working and middle-class New Yorkers— showed job loss at a higher rate than citywide, especially among Black women in the health care and hospitality industries. About 42 percent of those surveyed changed industry or careers, which Mr. Parrot said foreshadowed the future workplace, though it remains unclear what skills will be in demand.
A month before the citywide shutdown, Ivy Li, who owns a nail salon in Jamaica, Queens, considered her options. While officials weighed how to address the looming crisis, her salon, Ideal Nails, was packed.
Her staff was already wearing masks, though she said they sometimes drew stares or verbal abuse from clients.
After four months, Ms. Li reopened to limited customers, with plastic barriers and work stations farther apart.
Even now, not all of her staff has returned. Nor have all her clients. Some succumbed to Covid-19. The ones who have come back would recite a sad litany: “ ‘My mother died. My son died. My father. My brother,’ ” she said. “You would hear this a lot.”
She takes one more precaution: closing at 7:30 p.m., an hour earlier than before.
“Going home is a little unsafe,” Ms. Li said. “There are many people that blame us. It’s as if they think we especially have the virus.”
“There have been substantial economic changes coupled with the demise of a number of businesses and a rejiggering of demand across sectors,” Mr. Parrott said. “There’s a greater need now for a labor market matching system to match workers with emerging opportunities.”
That rethinking, he said, also involves reconsidering our relation to work.
The same technologies that make our lives easier can take advantage of the lowest-paid workers, especially gig workers. A recent study of New Yorkers who work for food delivery apps showed that many of them often don’t make minimum wage because they often have to pay for equipment or are shortchanged on tips. The ranks of these “deliveristas” swelled to an estimated 50,000 people during the lockdown as people at home ordered food and avoided grocery stores.
Dan Reitman owes his career — and everything he has — to dog walking. On the day he was supposed to return for his junior year of college, he walked away from his packed car and found work at a veterinarian’s office in Port Washington, Long Island. He started walking dogs for some customers. A dozen years later, he was making $1.1 million in revenue and employing 49 people at Dan’s Pet Care, which has branches in New York City and on Long Island.
On March 24, 2020, he shut it all down in a tearful chat with the staff.
The forced hiatus gave him a chance to rethink his operation, including expanding into dog training. Those changes — and PPP loans — helped him bring back his business bit by bit. Since business exploded in May, he hasn’t been able to hire enough people, leaving him with 160 clients on his waiting list.
“All those Covid puppies spent that entire time with their family,” Mr. Reitman, 33, said. “Now we’re seeing a lot of separation anxiety, and dogs being destructive. A lot of training is needed.”
After pressure from workers and advocates, the City Council is considering several bills to address their plight, including setting guidelines for pay and safety.
“There is such an infatuation with technology as new and somehow making possible great conveniences,” said Mr. Parrott, who supports the legislation. “These are companies people have idolized. But fundamentally it’s a business model that only works because it’s based on exploitation.”
Unable to predict — much less influence — the health and policy decisions that had closed the city, many service workers also turned to each other in mutual aid efforts to supply coworkers and friends with food.
For many, it was a reminder that community comes with a responsibility to share whatever time, talent or modest treasure they had to support their friends, neighbors and colleagues.
After working for more than a decade as a dominatrix, Venus Cuffs began throwing adult “kink” parties for friends and acquaintances in various underground venues around the city. In recent years, she has been hosting dance parties.
“I started to be able to showcase sexuality and sex in different ways,” she said, “and how vulnerable and fluid it is, rather than raunchy and painful.”
Although some promoters threw parties during lockdown, she was “morally opposed” to that. She switched to holding online workshops on bondage, domination and other topics.
“It’s not the same,” she said. “When you gather people socially, there’s touch, especially with sexuality and B.D.S.M. It’s hard to tie up somebody online. It’s not the same experience. Once the pandemic hit, we realized how much we needed each other.”
Before the pandemic, Mohini Karmacharya, who moved to New York from Nepal in 1999, had worked as a nanny for a family in Manhattan. When she lost that job during the lockdown, she sought help at an organization helping fellow Nepalese immigrants. She, in turn, chipped in to help deliver food and cleaning supplies.
“We were in a lot of fear, hearing the ambulance sirens every single day we were cooped up inside,” she said. “I found community setting up food distribution. Slowly, we began to build confidence that maybe we can survive this, which I didn’t believe before. But here we are.”
Those mutual aid efforts were especially necessary for workers who are undocumented immigrants, whose immigration status barred them from receiving government aid, like unemployment benefits. After months of intense testimony and demonstrations, the state established an excluded workers fund that could give some of them up to $15,000 each. The first payments should arrive next month.
Jerry D. Lewis shut down his Bronx barbershop a few days before the city’s lockdown. After 21 years giving haircuts and shaves six days a week – and with a loyal base of customers, especially from nearby Manhattan College – he had no idea what was going to happen next.
A few days after shutting down, he started giving haircuts at his home, dressing up like a surgeon and disinfecting everything.
“I had no choice,” Mr. Lewis, 51 and a father of four, said. “I know it’s a gray area, but I had mouths to feed.”
When reopening came, a PPP loan helped Mr. Lewis pay rent to his landlord. Familiar faces are passing by once again, though business is still far from where it was pre-pandemic.
Mr. Lewis, however, is upbeat: “I’m blessed,” he said. “We lost a lot. But we gained a lot of faith.”
The city has helped some businesses stay open with grants, though that help does not always trickle down to employees, let alone the performers, technicians and staff at the city’s venues, who often work as freelancers or independent contractors.
New Yorkers working in nightlife industries started NYC Nightlife United to help sustain them and to advocate for them. Their ranks include musicians and artists whose creativity has flowered even while their bank accounts have not.
Many of these artists, and the business owners who work with them, running galleries, clubs and performance spaces, are driven more by their dedication to the arts than the demands of running a small business, said Ric Leichtung, a concert promoter and co-founder of the coalition. “They just know they feel more passionate about culture than anything else. They have to participate.”
As the city plunges into summer, many of these workers are still worried about people wearing masks, getting vaccinated and keeping their workplaces safe, especially amid concerns about the Delta variant. That anxiety is echoed by the city’s Independent Budget Office, which said a “slow and uncertain recovery” lay ahead, especially for service workers who depend on face-to-face contact with tourists and customers.
Still, the last 15 months have helped many rediscover talents and gain new skills.
Mr. Ajche, who has returned to his night job delivering for restaurants, said his time distributing food, masks and cleaning supplies and going to rallies in support of workers made him realize he may be anonymous, but he is not powerless.
“The pandemic was hard, but it taught me I can help,” he said. “I would come home exhausted, but hearing ‘gracias’ or ‘God bless you,’ that was beautiful. I’ll never forget my roots in Guatemala. But I feel like a real New Yorker now. I struggled for my community.”
318 Restaurant Workers Union
32BJ SEIU
1199 SEIU
Adhikaar for Human Rights & Social Justice
Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce
CSEA Local 1000
Great Performances
Hotel Association of New York City
Independent Drivers Guild
Institute for Career Development
Job Path
Laundry Workers Center United
Make the Road
NYC Nightlife United
Send Chinatown Love
The Drivers Cooperative
Welcome to Chinatown
Workers Justice Project
Yemeni American Merchants Association
Written by David Gonzalez
Photographs by Todd Heisler
Jeffrey E. Singer contributed reporting
Designed and developed by Gray Beltran
Produced and edited by Jeffrey Furticella and Meghan Louttit
Additional production by Rumsey Taylor
Special thanks to Sonny Figueroa, William O’Donnell, NYT Art Production Department
Designed and developed by Gray Beltran. Produced and edited by Jeffrey Furticella and Meghan Louttit. Additional production by Rumsey Taylor. Special thanks to Sonny Figueroa, William O’Donnell, NYT Art Production Department
Advertisement

source

Book an appointment